After Arthur Conan Doyle's death in 1930, one New York paper, with imperfect grammar but a certain amount of unintended irony, announced the fact in a headline reading "Conan Doyle Dies of Sherlock Holmes Fame." Although not literally true, of course, it does convey a sense of Conan Doyle's famously ambivalent relationship toward his best-known creation. During the last years of his life, he was to see Holmes -- whose adventures he considered amusing potboilers, done primarily for the money -- go on to become one of the best-loved characters in English literature, one whose popularity was to eclipse that of both the historical novels that he felt were his most important literary contributions, and his own reputation as a champion of various social causes.
To some extent, this was inevitable. As Daniel Stashower points out in his highly readable new biography of the writer, Conan Doyle was very much a product of the Victorian era: a bluff, hearty, stiff-upper-lip type who put his faith in the virtues of scientific progress, good sportsmanship, and the improving nature of Anglo-Saxon culture. When the optimism of the 19th century died bloodily on the battlefields of the First World War, he was to find himself increasingly out of step with the world around him. In addition, his devotion to the cause of spiritualism, which was to consume much of his time in his later years, further alienated him from his public, which for the most part considered his spiritual pursuits at best a quaint eccentricity, and at worst, evidence that the creator of one of fiction's great rationalists was getting a bit soft in the head.
Although this gives a rather melancholy portrait of Conan Doyle's declining years, it's also true that the enthusiasm with which he embraced spiritualism was characteristic of how he approached everything in his life. Born in Edinburgh in 1859, he grew up in modest circumstances. Irish in heritage, the Doyles were prominent in the arts; Arthur's grandfather was a famous political caricaturist, and an uncle was the director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Doyle's father, however, was somewhat of a black sheep: He was a talented artist himself, but also an alcoholic and an epileptic who was to spend the last decades of his life in an insane asylum, leaving Arthur to be raised by his mother. After getting a medical degree from Edinburgh University, Conan Doyle moved to Portsmouth in the south of England to set up a practice and began writing to supplement his income. He might have remained a provincial doctor with a profitable sideline in literature but for two things: an ill-advised attempt to move to London to set up an ophthalmology practice, the failure of which persuaded him to turn permanently to writing, and, of course, the rising popularity of Sherlock Holmes.
Inspired by Poe's pioneering detective stories, Conan Doyle based his hero on Joseph Bell, his former professor and a brilliant diagnostician who could deduce volumes about a person's background and habits through close observation of their bearing and appearance. To Conan Doyle's surprise, Holmes was to become a genuine phenomenon and, although he was later to weary of the character (most notoriously trying to kill him off in The Final Problem), the public never did.
Stashower, to his credit, doesn't let Holmes overwhelm Conan Doyle the way the character ultimately did in real life, but writing with a fan's enthusiasm and a novelist's sense of detail and pacing (he's a published mystery writer in his own right), he does a good job of evoking the lesser-known aspects of his subject's life. He describes how Conan Doyle helped free men wrongly convicted of crimes on two occasions, defended Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist, ran -- unsuccessfully -- for parliament twice, and served as an army surgeon during the Boer War, later defending the conduct of the British army during that engagement (for which he was later given his knighthood). Conan Doyle was also a indefatigable lecturer on a wide variety of subjects
The most notorious of those subjects was, of course, spiritualism. Although Conan Doyle's devotion to this cause is often written off as an old man's folly, borne of his grief over losing his son and brother in World War I, it's worth noting that this was a very popular movement during the last century -- a "scientific" religion that many people hoped would provide the evidence of life after death that traditional religion had thus far been unable to (future prime minister Arthur Balfour, philosopher William James, and scientists William Crookes and Oliver Lodge all flirted with spiritualism at one point or another). Stashower provides a lot information on both the movement itself and on Conan Doyle's tireless proselytizing for it, and although he admits the irony that the creator of the supremely skeptical Holmes was willing to accept even the flimsiest proof of the spirit world's existence, he also tries to put his beliefs in both the context of the times and of Sir Arthur's life -- a life that is invoked in this book with sympathy and an enthusiasm worthy of its subject.
Ian Toll is a freelance writer. He lives in New York City.
An elementary life of the writer, historian, and activist who wanted to be remembered as more than "just" the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Novelist Stashower (Elephants in the Distance, 1989, etc.), like many fans of the Great Detective, is somewhat disappointed that Holmes's creator tried so hard to live him down. Still, Conan Doyle's latest biographer has immersed himself in all his works, from Professor Challenger's proto-sci-fi adventures, Brigadier Gerard's Napoleonic exploits, and assorted historical novels, to his detailed nonfiction and obsessive Spiritualist output-not to mention, also, the author's phenomenally active life. The origins of Holmes are well enough known: for example, how the young Edinburgh-trained doctor, languishing in a Portsmouth practice, decided to write a detective story, basing his hero on his old medical school lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell. Stashower offers no revelations about this or other aspects of Conan Doyle's early life, though by keeping a clear sense of context, he does scour the self-deprecation that Conan Doyle cast over them later. Indeed, if Conan Doyle had not made the serious career error of trying to start an ophthalmology practice in London, Stashower argues, he might well have remained a general practitioner with a literary sideline. Even as Sherlock Holmes took off in the Strand magazine, the author valued other projects more, such as his historical novels. And as he turned his prodigious energies to other interests-for instance, skiing in the Swiss Alps, running for a seat in Parliament, enlisting as a medical officer in the Boer War, campaigning against wrongful convictions (notably the cases of George Edalji and OscarSlater), and finally, Spiritualism-Stashower can suggest only that Conan Doyle's crusading zeal served as a replacement for his early, lost Catholic faith and that his belief in the Cottingley fairy hoax could be rooted in his institutionalized father's own fancies. A doggedly thorough investigation, though missing a few psychological clues.