Like a Victorian drawing room, Conan Doyle is delightfully crammed with all manner of intriguing miscellanea.
Though principally known as the creator of the world's most famous sleuth, Doyle aspired to be much more. He began as a doctor, but quickly switched to writing when his Holmes stories won instant acclaim. Capitalizing on his fame, he wrote cumbersome histroical novels, tiresome political tracts, science fiction stories, and middling good history of spiritualism. He championed lost causes, worked strenously to change English divorce laws, publicly railed against suffragettes - for which vitriol was poured into his mail box. He was even rash enough to debate "the most devastating intelligence of his age, a master of language," George Bernard Shaw. But Doyle was clearly outclassed. As pearsall writes, "Doyle lumbered up to him [Shaw] like a punch-drunk pugilist who had the added disadvantage of having iron balls attached to his feet." After World War I and until his death in 1930, Doyle devoted his energies to spreading the gospel of spiritualism.
Like Watson, Doyle was an intellectual bungler, crassly imperceptive - the worst of Victorian philistine. Yet like a true Victorian, Doyle was a man of staunch principles, and when Duty whispered low, he knew what he must do: even though he was in love with Jean Leckie, he did not abandon his first wife but stoically remained with her until her death.
Pearsall's book abounds with Victoriana. He brings into his consideration of Doyle discussions of British education, sports, religion, and politics; provides a fascinating history of criminal investigation; traces Doyle's literary predecessors and heirs, and points out the strengths, weakness, and glaring inconsistencies of the Holmes stories; examines Doyle and Holmes as political and intellectual reflections of their age; places Doyle's postwar mania for spiritualism in perspective.
Conan Doyle is thoroughly researched, colorfully written, deftly managed. With distinction and wit Pearsall presents Doyle and the age that shaped him. (St. Martin's, $10).