On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle: An Illustrated Devon Tour by Brian W Pugh and Paul R Spiring

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On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle: An Illustrated Devon Tour by Brian W Pugh and Paul R Spiring

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: The title says it all – this book goes on the trail of the actual locations that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It also comprises a detailed chronology of Doyle's life, and that of two influential friends, written in a crisp, scholarly style. Will appeal mainly to dedicated fans of Doyle and Victoriana. It does just what it says on the tin.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 125 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Book Guild Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846241987

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This slim volume, comprising just four chapters, is both a detailed chronology of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle and, for those that want to follow in the footsteps of ACD (I adopt the authors' abbreviation gladly), The Complete Arthur Conan Doyle Devon Tour – locations that inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles and more.

The opening chapter chronicles ACD's life. The second chapter is devoted to the history of an influential friend, Dr George Turnavine Budd, while the third explores his friendship with fellow writer Bertram Fletcher Robinson and the evolution of ACD's master-work, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This third chapter is the most accessible to those (like me) with a fairly basic knowledge of ACD's literary output. Its description of the incubation of the novel makes for an exciting read – under Robinson's influence, ACD revives Sherlock Holmes, whom he had formerly killed off, and we track the locations and lore that inspired this classic detective story. There is a brief introductory preface, and a meticulous bibliography. The whole work smacks of a thesis – this isn't a criticism, merely a comment on its lay-out and scholarly tone.

Because of the density of its text, it's not a particularly light read – it has a distinctly Victorian feel. This work appears to be intended to be a definitive, general handbook and reference work on ACD, and on his Devon locations in particular. There are no moments of purple prose or wanton speculations about ACD's state of mind.

To give an example, the authors describe how, in July 1906, ACD's first wife, Touie died after a long battle with consumption. They state: ACD was deeply affected by her death and entered into a depression. Four packed paragraphs later, ACD is engaged to another, having chosen the family home, campaigned for the release of a prisoner by lobbying the Home Office and Scotland Yard, visited the Daily Telegraph, indulged in a spot of golf, and attended a close friend's funeral. By the following paragraph he is married to his second wife, Jean. Phew.

Barbara Taylor Bradford would have written a series of novels based on the events on one page of this volume, so closely packed are the events described. Again, I don't want this to sound like a criticism – it's great to find such thorough research – but if you aren't particularly interested in the subject of this biography, you may struggle. The book's flyleaf describes it as appealing to the 'casual reader' – but that casual reader needs to be a substantial Holmes or ACD fan.

The final chapter, as previously mentioned, contains a tour for those who wish to step in the footsteps of ACD in Devon - from Plymouth, inland over Dartmoor, across to Torquay. I am reasonably familiar with some of the places mentioned, and the next time I visit the area, would certainly take this book and attempt a part of the ACD tour, as having all this information would certainly bring it to life. Again, it's written in this Victorian style – expect no Rough Guide here – but I found that rather refreshing. There are lots of black & white photographs to illustrate the places of note and some small maps, though an OS map would still be helpful (no, I don't have the dreaded SatNav and, no, you can't beat a map). As it is so detailed in terms of text, I feel a few more line-drawings and hand-drawn, large-scale maps would have helped, as there are quite a few paragraphs along the lines of return to the mini-roundabout and double-back…. No problem if there is both a driver and a navigator, though. (But I am the world's worst navigator).

For a chronology of ACD's life, I can't see how this book could be bettered. Let other writers put the flesh on the bones – sometimes it's good just to see the skeleton. I was amazed at ACD's energy, activity and the range of his interests, despite many serious illnesses. While I would disagree with his stance on the Boer War (popular at the time), I had no idea about the prisoners threatened with hanging whose lives were saved by ACD's vigorous campaigning against decisions based on circumstantial evidence (see Arthur and George in recommended reading below for more on this topic). The authors have certainly succeeded in providing a detailed portrait of an eminent Victorian.

Thanks to Book Guild Publishing for providing the Bookbag with this exemplary piece of research. It surely ought to reside in the glove-box of any Holmesian touring Devon.

It seems that the ACD fan is spoilt for choice - The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller is an excellent, thorough biography and probably best read before tackling On The Trail of Conan Doyle – though I note that Pugh has also written A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which, judging by On The Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle, would take some beating on the thoroughness front.

While it has its flaws, The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson may appeal to those readers interested in pursuing the trail of their favourite writer, like Pugh and Spiring. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes brings ACD to life again in a contemporary setting, and is an intriguing and recommended read.

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Buy On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle: An Illustrated Devon Tour by Brian W Pugh and Paul R Spiring at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On the Trail of Arthur Conan Doyle: An Illustrated Devon Tour by Brian W Pugh and Paul R Spiring at Amazon.com.

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