TELLER OF TALES by Daniel Stashower


The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle
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An elementary life of the writer, historian, and activist who wanted to be remembered as more than “just” the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Novelist Stashower (Elephants in the Distance, 1989, etc.), like many fans of the Great Detective, is somewhat disappointed that Holmes’s creator tried so hard to live him down. Still, Conan Doyle’s latest biographer has immersed himself in all his works, from Professor Challenger’s proto-sci-fi adventures, Brigadier Gerard’s Napoleonic exploits, and assorted historical novels, to his detailed nonfiction and obsessive Spiritualist output—not to mention, also, the author’s phenomenally active life. The origins of Holmes are well enough known: for example, how the young Edinburgh-trained doctor, languishing in a Portsmouth practice, decided to write a detective story, basing his hero on his old medical school lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell. Stashower offers no revelations about this or other aspects of Conan Doyle’s early life, though by keeping a clear sense of context, he does scour the self-deprecation that Conan Doyle cast over them later. Indeed, if Conan Doyle had not made the serious career error of trying to start an ophthalmology practice in London, Stashower argues, he might well have remained a general practitioner with a literary sideline. Even as Sherlock Holmes took off in the Strand magazine, the author valued other projects more, such as his historical novels. And as he turned his prodigious energies to other interests—for instance, skiing in the Swiss Alps, running for a seat in Parliament, enlisting as a medical officer in the Boer War, campaigning against wrongful convictions (notably the cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater), and finally, Spiritualism—Stashower can suggest only that Conan Doyle’s crusading zeal served as a replacement for his early, lost Catholic faith and that his belief in the Cottingley fairy hoax could be rooted in his institutionalized father’s own fancies. A doggedly thorough investigation, though missing a few psychological clues. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-5074-4
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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