His reputation as a novelist secure, O'Brian (The Wine-Dark Sea, 1993, etc.) here seeks to cement his reputation as a short-story writer. The author has established a deservedly devoted following in this country for his Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin 18th-century naval series, but this group of 27 stories, originally published between 1950 and 1974, is not, taken as a whole, as strong. He is much interested in obscure journeys across frontiers and unhappy marriages, and many of the tales are more vignettes than classic short stories. Early entries feature solitary men who are invariably disoriented and buffeted by natural forces (or by forces implicitly beyond natural ones) while engaged in fishing, fox hunting, pigeon shoots, and other outdoor pursuits. In"The Happy Despatch," for example, Woolen, a poverty-stricken Englishman stuck in a horrid marriage and living as an outcast in an Irish village, stumbles across a stash of golden coins while fishing high in the hills. What seems a sudden shift in his fortunes turns into something very like a horror story in the abrupt, enigmatic ending. In "The Tunnel at the Frontier," a befuddled traveler appears to be passing from life to death. "Lying in the Sun" offers these thoughts from a man on the beach with his insipid wife: "If only she would go away, he would be quite fond of her; he would indeed, and he would do all he possibly could to be agreeable by post." Later stories are less claustrophobic and more striking, especially the dark and bitter "The Chian Wine," in which the planned ceremonial drinking of an ancient cask of spirits is precluded by timeless violence, and the volume's unexpectedly amusing final entry, "On the Wolfsberg," wherein yet another solitary wanderer (female this time) learns a startling truth. Eloquent and elegant as expected, these often intriguing tales are never quite as enthralling as one might hope.