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The man behind Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes. Andrew Lycett. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. [pounds sterling]20.00. xv + 527 pages. ISBN 978-0-297-84852-3.

One of the bizarreries of the world of publishing seems to be that if it is your ambition to perpetrate biography your chances of actually seeing it in print increase in ratio to the number of biographies of your selected biographee already crowding the bookshelves. Joining such 'racing certainties' as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and the Brontes, is Conan Doyle. He has already had more lives than a cat--those by John Lamond (1931), Hesketh Pearson (1943), John Dickson Carr (1949), Mollie and Michael Hardwick (1964), Pierre Nordon (1966), Ivor Brown (1972), Charles Higham (1976), Ronald Pearsall (1977), Julian Symons (1979), Owen Dudley Edwards (1983), Michael Coren (1995), Martin Booth (1997), and Daniel Stashower (1999)--as well as an autobiography, Memories and Adventures, published in 1924.

Doyle was a peculiar mixture, a charitable, kindly man, yet one who thought it good manly sport to knock out baby seals' brains with a spiked club. A well-intentioned, though failed, doctor and essentially humanitarian, who nevertheless gloried in matters military, patriotically impervious to the concomitant bloodshed. A shrewd forensic investigator who believed in fairies. A cradle Catholic who abandoned the tenets of conventional religion in favour of the miasmatic ectoplasm and the cheese-cloth of fraud-veined spiritualism. The chivalric, loyal husband who kept a platonic mistress throughout the nine long years of his disease-doomed wife's slow dying. A bundle of contradictions--like most of us.

The plain facts of his life have been thoroughly rehearsed. Birth in Edinburgh. Irish ancestry, a drunkard father, a romanticising, dominating, doting, and doted upon, 'Mam'. The years as a medical student. Ship's surgeon on a whaler; the empty doctor's waiting room at Southsea, and how memories of the clinical methodology of his old Edinburgh Hospital mentor, Dr Joseph Bell, fertilised his concept of diagnostically acute scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes; his cavalier and callous despatch of Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls in the mistaken belief that his historical creations, Brigadier Gerard and other non-Sherlockian novels, were of infinitely superior literary importance; his grumpy revivification of Holmes to the merry lilt of coins and cheery clinking of the cash register; his interventions in real-life criminal causes, such as his admirable rescue of Oscar Slater from the suffocating shadow of a Caledonian miscarriage of justice, and the less securely based rehabilitation of the reputation of George Edalji, the Parsee solicitor imprisoned for the odious crime of cattle maiming; his foolish dalliance with the magazine cut-out winged sprites known as the Cottingley fairies; his final submission to the dubieties of the seance-table.

Doyle had a talent amounting to genius for the creation, the summoning to life, of characters who swamp him, blot him out. T.S. Eliot put it neatly: 'Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence. Collins, after all, is more real to his readers than Cuff; Poe is more real than Dupin; but Sir A. Conan Doyle, the eminent spiritualist of whom we read in Sunday papers, the author of a number of exciting stories which we read years ago and have forgotten, what has he to do with Holmes?' Dr Budd, magnificently re-presented by Hesketh Pearson, and Professor Challenger of The Lost World likewise rise above, and independent of, their celebrant.

What is of new import in this fourteenth and latest life? We are guided towards that assaying in an Afterword, which is of such value that it should have been placed at the head of the book. In it, Mr Lycett recounts how he has been the first to achieve access to the Grail papers, long shielded from outsiders' gaze. This advantage has resulted in his being able to present the most complete account of the complexities of Doyle's personal life to date, and to have begot, out of a curious mixture of co-operation and frustration from the Doylean tribe, sufficient novel material to write probably the best--although I nurse a personal penchant for Hesketh Pearson's, by comparison, biographical souffle, with its superb evocation of Doyle's sojourn in Plymouth with Dr Budd--and certainly the fullest biography.

[Editorial Note. HarperCollins has recently published Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley ([pounds sterling]25.00. ix + 710 pages. ISBN 978-0-00-724759-2). This valuable collection publishes for the first time Conan Doyle's long correspondence with his mother, a correspondence which lasted from 1867 to 1920. The editors have also made use of the various holdings in other libraries but the bulk of the letters are from the British Library. These are frank and revealing and follow Doyle from his childhood school days to his mother's death, nine years before his own. They reveal the many and varied interests that occupied the author, for, as the editors write, 'Conan Doyle lived a life as gripping as any of his own adventure tales'. Editorial intervention has been kept to a minimum.]
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Title Annotation:Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes
Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
Words:855
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