The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller

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The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-0436206139

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Having reviewed several other biographies of well-known authors in the last few months, it struck me that most of these wordsmiths were dedicated writers, famous for their books and little if anything else, except perhaps for the odd isolated newsworthy incident. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not have been more different. Although his name is indelibly associated with that of Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most renowned fictional detective of all, he had several careers in one.

Born in Edinburgh, he grew up in relative poverty, his early years overshadowed by a talented but severely alcoholic father. A false start as a doctor soon went by the wayside as he discovered his gift for writing and selling short stories, though it was not until he created the phenomenon that was Holmes that he really became successful. The pipe-smoking sleuth was the Harry Potter of his time, with large queues forming every time a new story was about to be published. This biography reveals how slapdash his creator was, with the stories carelessly written and riddled with inconsistencies. Conan Doyle always thought that Holmes prevented him from being taken seriously as a writer and once killed him off, claiming it was 'justifiable homicide in self-defence' on his part; 'had I not killed him, he would have killed me'. There were such howls of protest that his 'killer' was later obliged to bring him back to life.

Miller brings the author to life well, and writes touchingly of his personal life. He is the first of Conan Doyle's biographers to be granted unlimited access to his unpublished correspondence and other long-suppressed archive sources. Touie, his first wife, suffered for many years from consumption, and he fell in love with Jean, 16 years his junior. He made it plain that a marriage between them could never be until Touie had passed away, and despite their difference in ages the second marriage indeed proved very happy.

All the different strands of a multi-faceted life are woven together well. Conan Doyle was an ardent patriot and fervent propagandist during the Boer War when many others were quick to criticize. Even after his son was wounded at the battle of the Somme in 1916 he still called the Great War 'a glorious adventure', and vowed that 'never again in our time will a German visitor be welcome in our country'. He made a half-hearted attempt to run for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist but soon grew disenchanted with politics. As an unofficial but tireless champion of the underdog, he fought hard on behalf of the Edalji family, victims of a miscarriage of justice, later taking up the cudgels on behalf of Oscar Slater, whose conviction for murder led to grave doubts as to his guilt, and then for Roger Casement, executed for spying. Unhappily for his reputation, in his last years he became an ardent campaigner and apologist for the spiritualist movement, and was also taken in by the photographic hoax known to posterity as the Cottingley fairies.

This is a remarkably objective and compulsively readable biography of a gifted but deeply flawed man. Miller makes it clear that a number of his books were sub-standard, and that the criticism they met on publication was not unmerited – though the behaviour of one prominent literary editor who wrote several damning criticisms of one of his books, each under a different pseudonym, was definitely out of order. He also finds his subject's gullibility in later years hard to defend. The impression we are left with is of a deeply committed, very energetic personality, but sadly a somewhat misguided one at times. Perhaps it is right that he should be remembered above all for the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

Our thanks to Harvill Secker for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For other Victorian literary biographies, why not try Charlotte Bronte, by Lyndall Gordon, or Oscar's Books, by Thomas Wright, or for the life of another famous thriller writer, Agatha Christie: an English Mystery, by Laura Thompson.

Booklists.jpg The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller is in the Top Ten Biographies and Autobiographies.

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