Reviewed by Michael Sims
Sunday, January 27, 2008
THE MAN WHO CREATED SHERLOCK HOLMES
The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
By Andrew Lycett
Free Press. 557 pp. $30
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
A Life in Letters
Edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley
Penguin Press. 706 pp. $37.95
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, he was famed as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But he was also the author of many other books, a missionary for spiritualism and a frequent defender of the embattled British Empire. As acts of imagination, Conan Doyle's re-inventions of himself -- physician, novelist, patriot, journalist, celebrity and occasionally even sleuth asked to solve real-life crimes -- rival his creation of the immortal consulting detective. A new biography and a new collection of letters display the many aspects of Conan Doyle's character, revealing in fresh detail the human being behind the waxed mustache and tightly buttoned waistcoat of his portraits.
Andrew Lycett titles his comprehensive and surprisingly action-packed biography The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn't skimp on his subject's other accomplishments. Conan Doyle complained for decades that his fictional detective's popularity kept the author from achieving better things, and Lycett demonstrates that Holmes was indeed only one child of a busy brain. He reminds us of the historical novels, including Micah Clarke and The White Company, as well as the science fiction masterpiece The Lost World.
There have been several biographies of the writer who gave us some of our most potent imagery of late Victorian England and a character even better known than Huckleberry Finn. Lycett's, however, is the first to incorporate private family papers that became available only after the death in 1997 of the author's last surviving offspring, Dame Jean Conan Doyle. His map of his subject's private life is much better detailed because of it. We see Conan Doyle's flaws as clearly as his virtues: Alongside his dutiful financial support for his mother and siblings, for example, we witness how, while his first wife was dying of tuberculosis, he began an affair with the woman who became his second wife.
It is difficult to write about Conan Doyle without contrasting Sherlock Holmes's rational genius with his creator's credulous zeal for the paranormal, especially spirit manifestations and communication through mediums. Often, Conan Doyle demonstrated all the intellectual rigor of a Shirley MacLaine, and no two books in the catalog of unplanned hilarity are more guffaw-inducing than his History of Spiritualism and The Coming of the Fairies. Yet Lycett nicely reveals the pathos behind Conan Doyle's commitment to spiritualism, which was an attempt to discover -- after the deaths of his son, his brother and close friends -- actual evidence of an afterlife, rather than depend upon faith.
Lycett admires peripatetic writers; his subjects have included Ian Fleming and Rudyard Kipling. Like them, Conan Doyle spent a lot of time gadding about. He embraced skiing and bicycling when both were new enough to draw jokes from bystanders. He dug for fossils near Tunbridge Wells, clubbed baby seals in the Arctic, camped with his wife in Alberta, doctored wounded soldiers in Bloemfontein. Lycett is a diligent investigator with a good eye for the telling detail; his account of the Second Boer War is convincingly textured and buttressed with an understanding of strategy. Despite its wealth of detail, the book moves quickly.
Unfortunately, Lycett conveys his tireless research in sometimes tiring or graceless prose. He begins countless sentences and paragraphs with an orphaned "This," as in "This suggests" or "This resulted in," leaving the reader to backtrack while wondering, "This what? This who?" Furthermore, Conan Doyle undoubtedly would have been outraged at Lycett's habit of referring to his subject as "Arthur" for almost 500 pages. Surely Andrew would object if reviewers presumed such familiarity with him.
Meanwhile, other scholars have been compiling a new collection of Conan Doyle's correspondence, resulting in the 700 pages of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley. Lellenberg has edited books about Conan Doyle, including a study of his earlier biographers. Stashower is himself a Conan Doyle biographer, author of Teller of Tales. Foley, a great-nephew of the great man, is now executor of the estate. (In his gossipy afterword, Andrew Lycett provides a slanted account of some turf wars between this camp and his own.) The three together amount to a formidable encyclopedia of Doyleiana, and their introduction and commentaries keep us oriented during the lively but occasionally tedious one-man show. Now and then the editors' additions are superfluous or repetitive, but mostly they provide unobtrusive enlightenment. The editors also insert quotations from Conan Doyle's fiction for apt and amusing contrast.
The new collection harvests, among other sources, the same windfall as Lycett's biography, but the subtitle seems a bit too comprehensive. Most of the letters in this volume are from Conan Doyle to his mother, resulting in an idealized self-portrait limited by what he was willing to tell "the Mam," as he called her. But their relationship was close, and throughout her life she hoarded letters from her increasingly famous son.
They are an invaluable resource, full of vivid incidental details that bring the era to life. We see Conan Doyle from the age of 8, reporting (and sometimes exaggerating) his academic achievements and sporting triumphs at boarding school -- and, the editors remind us, omitting the physical abuse he would recall in adulthood. In one mid-career missive to the Mam, we learn that on a U.S. tour in October 1894, Conan Doyle was treated to a harvest-themed banquet worthy of the Zenith Chamber of Commerce: "the room lighted with hollowed out pumpkins, a great harvest moon in the corner, decorations of shucks of corn & maize, live sheep & donkeys & round the walls, & the name cards printed as by some poor country printer. The waiters were all in farm dress with big straw hats." Such details, trivial in themselves, remind us yet again how difficult it will be for a biographer to recapture the texture of an era when daily communication takes place mostly in ephemeral telephone conversations (although e-mail is now a primary source).
They also demonstrate how casually Arthur Conan Doyle could bring a scene to life. We read biographies of him, after all, because we still read his books. His stories, especially the Holmes adventures, live: the heroic teamwork, the triumph of reason, the excitement and insight drawn from close observation, and not least the roaring fire protecting us from dangers that lurk in the fog. *
Michael Sims's most recent book is "Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination"; he is editing an Edwardian-era crime anthology.