December 2008

Conan Doyle steps out of the shadow of Sherlock Holmes

By Russell Miller
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The "death" of Sherlock Holmes in 1893's "The Final Problem" sparked worldwide grief. As recounted by Russell Miller in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Prince of Wales was said to be particularly anguished. In the City of London, workers sported black armbands or wore black mourning crepe tied round their top hats; in New York 'Keep Holmes Alive' societies sprang into being." Conan Doyle, by then one of the world's most popular authors, found himself reviled – one old lady hit him with her handbag. But he'd had enough of Holmes and was happy to send him over the Reichenbach Falls in Moriarty's grasp. The detective had come to eclipse everything Conan Doyle did. He wanted to move on, saying the killing of Holmes was self – defense, "since if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me."Miller's new biography of Conan Doyle is a masterful compilation of the life and times of the man who, despite his efforts at literary homicide, is remembered principally as the creator of Holmes and his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson.

One of the joys of the book is to see Conan Doyle's myriad inspirations for the characters, locations and plots with which Conan Doyle filled his most famous stories. Miller presents Dr. Joseph Bell, one of Conan Doyle's instructors at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, who could deduce a patient's illness at a glance by observing what others merely saw. The plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is revealed to have originated in a chance encounter with a young journalist on a sea voyage from South Africa. Conan Doyle himself, and his experience as a struggling physician, provided a model for Dr. Watson, the chronicler of Holmes' remarkable skills.

But as Conan Doyle always took pains to point out, his life consisted of much more than Sherlock Holmes. Miller's book therefore emphasizes the "other" Conan Doyle, the man whose long life was filled with adventures every bit as wondrous and sometimes as dangerous as any fictional detective. As a writer, Conan Doyle made his reputation on historical novels and short stories, painstakingly researched works that sold well but that never received the serious acclaim he hoped for. His love of action and his jingoistic patriotism led him to volunteer for service in the Boer War and World War I, both of which he defended tirelessly even as they became bloody morasses. On the home front, the firmly anti – religious author often fought for reform, whether railing against Britain's archaic divorce laws or championing those wrongfully accused of crime. He was a formidable advocate, Miller notes, because "once Conan Doyle made up his mind he was unstoppable, impervious to argument, blind to contradictory evidence, untroubled by doubt." But his final crusade, in the cause of spiritualism, nearly destroyed his reputation, leading as it did to a published article in which he forcefully presented "proof" for the existence of fairies.

Conan Doyle was a remarkable, complicated man and The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle does great justice to this great author, finally bringing him out of the shadow of his greatest creation.

Chris Scott reads Holmes stories in Nashville.

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