Balanced, highly readable biography of Sherlock Holmes’s phenomenally prolific creator, who began his career as a hardheaded physician and ended it with a daffy devotion to Spiritualism and an adamant advocacy for existence of fairies.
British nonfiction veteran Miller (Behind the Lines: The Oral History of Special Operations in World War II, 2002, etc.) reveals his subject as a talented, extraordinarily complicated man. Conan Doyle (1859–1930) wrote 54 short stories and four novels starring Sherlock Holmes. They earned a fortune but never brought him the high literary standing he craved. His publishers and public mostly tolerated his numerous other novels, histories, tracts and pamphlets—the biography deals directly with most—but they always clamored for more Holmes. Miller’s narrative is firmly traditional, beginning with family background, then proceeding from cradle to grave with pauses for cultural and social history, as well as descriptions of Conan Doyle’s work and travels. The writer had a complex love life. Married to Louisa “Touie” Hawkins in 1885, he later fell in love and established a platonic relationship with a younger woman, Jean Leckie, who virtually joined the family and assumed the role of wife-in-waiting for nine years while Touie slowly died of tuberculosis. Miller is strong on the genesis of Holmes, noting that Conan Doyle properly credited Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Dupin as an early influence. The large, stout author was also an eager athlete, a vigorous player of cricket and golf. Later in his life, he volunteered for active military duty several times but was politely turned down. The sad final section shows a deeply deluded, intransigent Conan Doyle, traveling the world to trumpet the reality of fairies and Spiritualism, committing his fortune and reputation to proving that the dead can speak to the living.
Ably shows a writer whose strengths were as prodigious as his weaknesses.