Read Recently — February 2016 — Biography

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: the life and times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Charles and Mary Doyle, of two Anglo-Irish families. The Doyles were an artistic family, mostly the visual arts, and Charles worked hard to find his place in the world. Still, he never quite fit in and turned to drink, eventually dying in an asylum. This in turn influenced his son, who first graduated from medical school (including studying under one Dr. Bell, who claimed to be able to deduce much about a person merely from looking at them) and then eventually turned to writing, which would make him rich and famous (though not as rich, perhaps, as he should have been; circumstances at the time made him sell all rights to “A Study in Scarlet” , the first Sherlock Holmes story, to the publisher for about 25 pounds (more money in those days than now, true, but not what the story was worth). As he aged he turned away from Catholicism and Christianity itself to spiritualism, which was becoming more of a religion of its own in those days (there would be a fascinating book in the study of the rise and fall of spiritualism in the late 19th and early 20th century).

Doyle traveled widely, including a stint as a doctor on a whaling ship in the northern seas as a young man. He was married twice; his first wife died of consumption while his second wife, who had been his mistress for several years, survived him. Doyle died in bed, at home, in 1930. Probable cause heart failure.

Doyle was a complex character, with many of the usual English Victorian prejudices and faults. He grew to dislike Holmes, who he felt was distracting people from his real work, his more literary stories. His life was basically a who’s who of encounters with the literati at the time. In his youth, for example, he met Oscar Wilde while at dinner with their mutual publisher and openly admired his talent; later he quite changed his mind. He also famously formed a friendship with Harry Houdini over the scientific examination of spiritualist mediums; they later fell out.

The book is well-written and mostly well-edited; I didn’t notice many faults though the most glaring one (to me) was a note that one of Doyle’s family went to school for a “Bachelor of Scinence degree”. On the other hand, Lycett occasionally sticks his own voice in and makes errors of fact: in one case, he talks about how an early lie detector used “changes in pulse to tell if someone was telling the truth. . . . half a century earlier Poe had anticipated such a development in his story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart'” which, ya know, Poe didn’t. I am second to many in my admiration of Poe, but “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a psychological study of guilt, not an anticipation of a lie detector. Later, Lycett uses the out-of-date term “authoress”, and not in such a way that it is obviously the voice of someone from the time.

In an afterword, Lycett discusses the writing of the book, and how hard it was to get hold of original sources.

As ever, when deciding whether to recommend a book, it ultimately comes down to, “is this likely to interest the reader?” Which is, of course, purely personal. If you’re into biographies, as I am, or if you’re into Conan Doyle, as I kinda am, this is a good ‘un. So, recommended.

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