Monday, February 24, 2014

Behind The Sherlock Mania: The Detective's Creator In Both Fact & Fiction

(With a slew of movies and British and American television series, Sherlock Holmes has never been bigger since he went over Reichenbach Falls to his apparent death in an 1893 story.  Here are two book reviews, published in April 2008, about Holmes' creator.) 
Like many a lad, I drank in the Sherlock Holmes detective stories like so many bottles of soda pop without knowing anything about their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It didn’t really matter because Holmes and the world of 221B Baker Street seemed so lifelike that many readers believed that he really existed.
In the years since, I have come across occasional references to Conan Doyle in connection with his fascination with spiritualism, but only got the full measure of the man in two seemingly different but rather similar books – The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a biography by Andrew Lycett, and Arthur and George, a novel by Julian Barnes.
Both similarly portray Conan Doyle as a likeable medical doctor of middling competence who became a prolific, enormously popular and wealthy writer, historian, fantasist and propagandist for Britannia and his myriad pet causes who in the waning years of Victorian England dove into the deep end of the spiritualism pool head first. Once in those charlatan-filled waters, Conan Doyle did not cast aside the deductive logic of his own medical training that his famous detective used to such great effect as to apply it (with little success) to the fuzzy pseudo-religious belief that the dead can be contacted by mediums who are able to inform them about the afterlife.
Long story short: Conan Doyle was as prim as any proper Victorian gentleman, but he was a bit of a kook.
Conan Doyle repeatedly crossed wands with Harry Houdini, and the great American magician, escapologist and spiritualism debunker played him like a cheap violin. A séance spirit guide called Pheneas seems to have dominated the last years of Conan Doyle's life to little effect, although second wife Jean apparently was able to channel her desire for a luxurious vacation home through Pheneas, which Conan Doyle promptly had built at considerable expense.
* * * * *
Through no intention of Lycett, I concluded after laboring through his 527-page biography that there indeed is little for which Conan Doyle should be remembered other than his marvelous detectives stories, including my faves, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventure of the Speckled Band and A Scandal in Bohemia.
Lycett's biography is not merely exhaustive; it's exhausting. He catalogues Conan Doyle's athletic exploits (mostly mediocre), business deals (mostly flops), and speaking tours and trips abroad (mostly boring).
More interesting is his relationship with his mother, the beloved "Mam," with whom he never cut the apron strings, and with his two families.
There was his tubercular first wife Louise and their children. Conan Doyle was devoted to her in a chivalric sort of way but cold as a cucumber to children Mary and Kingsley, and almost certainly was sleeping with Jean, the second wife, before Louise's death. He was slightly more paternal to their issue, sons Denis and Adrian and daughter Billy, but as is all too typical of the offspring of famous fathers for whom their work comes first, all were a bit blarmy in the bean.
* * * * *
On the other hand, Barnes’s Arthur and George is a fast read at 386 pages and an engaging one at that.
This historic novel concerns Conan Doyle's most compelling real-life case, which Lycett covers in a mere handful of pages while revealing what Conan Doyle had for breakfast during that period, the gentleman’s clubs where he lunched and the worthies with whom he supped in the evening.
Arthur is, of course, Conan Doyle, while George is George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer who was framed and convicted in 1903 of mutilating farm animals in the rural West Midlands.
Conan Doyle, always the one for taking up causes, became interested in the case and met the young Edalji in prison, where he naively clung to the belief that racism played no role in his fate and justice would prevail sooner or later.
It turned out to be later and then only partial vindication as Conan Doyle proved Edalji's innocence but failed to win him restitution. Meanwhile, several years passed before the young man’s law license was restored.
* * * * *
Lycett concludes that it was off putting that a man like Conan Doyle with such a commanding physical presence should have become a wraith before his death at age 71 in 1930.

But, he writes:
"It was also fitting, since, from his start in Edinburgh, that city of contrasts, Arthur's life had been about crossing boundaries and trying to reconcile opposites.
"At the time the obituaries were respectful. But there was a sense that his day had passed. As the bright young things of the jazz age struggled with economic depression, they were not greatly interested in a man who had become obsessed with another world."
A sad epitaph for such a great storyteller, but then Conan Doyle never knew when to quit. Just like his Sherlock Holmes.

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