TELLER OF TALES: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower. Allen Lane £18.99/ Henry Holt, $32.50.
Reviewed by JONATHAN SALE,
Financial Times Service
Elementary, my dear Doyle
The father of Sherlock Holmes
"Is there anybody there?" asked Holmes urgently.
"Unlikely, Holmes," I snapped. "You've just barricaded the door of our lodgings in Baker Street so that not even Moriarty could slide through the cracks. And why are we sitting in the dark?"
"Because, Watson, I am pursuing my paranormal investigations. Is there a World Beyond, as our friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believes? Is it packed with spirits of the Departed? Do fairies flutter about us?"
"Look, old chap, your job is to investigate the criminally insane, not join their ranks. Heavens above what's that stuff oozing out of your ears?"
"Ectoplasm, my dear Watson."
Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle
detail of a portrait by
H.L. Gates, 1927.
National Portrait Gallery,
Such a scene is highly unlikely, of course the steely brained Great Detective would never fall for anything so irrational and sentimental as spiritualism. His creator, though, was obsessed by medium studies. Arthur Conan Doyle considered the new growth area of messages from beyond the grave to be as important as Columbus reaching America. Not only did he accept, for example, the word of two young girls that they had photographed fairies, but he also thrust paranormal powers upon his baffled friend Houdini, who claimed to be gifted only with an unusually bendy body.
What would really have had Holmes eating his deerstalker with impotent rage was Conan Doyle's attempt to track down Agatha Christie when she staged a brief disappearance. Instead of pointing his magnifying glass at the mud on Col. Christie's boots, he hired a psychic, who failed to discover the vanishing lady.
Yet before he surrounded himself with psychic sidekicks, Conan Doyle did manage to make his life imitate his art by applying Baker Street-style methods to real cases. He cleared the name of a man suspected of slashing cattle, and got a dog off the charge of killing sheep. He discovered that a haunting, in which ghostly chains were dragged along the floor, was in fact caused by a living inhabitant of the house (although, oddly, he later declared the spooky sounds had a supernatural origin).
With his burly build and walrus mustache, he could have passed for Dr. Watson. Like the worthy doctor, he had some military experience, having volunteered for a soldier's hospital during the Boer War. A man of the great outdoors, he went as a 20year-old medical student on an Arctic whaling expedition: His most serious patient was himself, when he fell off an ice-floe. A pioneering motorist, he picked up one of Britain's earliest speeding tickets.
There was also art and madness in his family background. His uncle Richard Doyle drew the classic Punch cover that was used every week for decades. His father Charles, an alcoholic who spent much of his life in an asylum, was also an artist, and illustrated "A Study in Scarlet," the novella that launched Holmes. Significantly, both uncle and father drew fairies, Richard as an illustrator of children's books, Charles as a possible believer in their existence.
There were many strands to the author's life, and Daniel Stashower weaves them together to make a most engaging biography. He hunts for clues, delivers verdicts and, where the jury is still out, presents the evidence gently. He brings a modern sensibility to bear, but also points out that this is what it is modern. He explains that spiritualism, on which he concentrates rather more than Conan Doyle's 1977 biographer, may today be pushed to the fringes; but it was once, particularly after the mass bereavements of World War I, a widespread if controversial obsession. (Arthur Balfour, the future prime minister, was a president of the Society for Psychic Research.)
What really chills the marrow of Sherlock Holmes devotees is that his creator wanted to kill him off even before the Reichenbach Falls. Fortunately Mrs. Doyle, his domineering mother, insisted on a reprieve. Conan Doyle believed that his high-water mark in literature was a saber-rattling saga titled "Sir Nigel"; presumably he positioned the Baker Street stories somewhere down near the plughole. The author cannot have been best pleased when his major historical work on Sir N. was praised as the boys' book of the year.
Creating the greatest fictional detective was not the achievement the author would put at the top of his curriculum vitae. Nor did he seem to be aware of his great services to science-fiction in the form of "The Lost World." Without giving himself proper credit, he had created two classics of popular fiction and that is two more than most writers can hope for.