Conan Doyle

223 pages,
ISBN: 0773729348

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Away from Holmes
by I. M. Owen

I have been reading Conan Doyle since soon after I learned to read, yet I knew little about him beyond the facts that he was trained as a physician and that he was a convinced spiritualist. Michael Coren's biography is therefore welcome.
This quintessentially English writer was of Irish descent on both sides, was born in Edinburgh, and spoke with an Edinburgh accent. He was a jock: he loved boxing, played both kinds of football, was a distinguished cricketer, learned skiing in Norway, and could "claim to have been the first to introduce skis into the Grisons division of Switzerland." In Winnipeg in 1932 he watched a minor-league baseball game and was instantly convinced that it was a better game than cricket, a conclusion I've come to after many years of resistance. When he got home he wrote letters to the papers urging the claims of what Coren calls "that least English of games". (Does he believe the old fiction that the first game was played in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839? We have it on the authority of Miss Austen that young Catherine Morland was playing "base ball" in Wiltshire over forty years before that.)
Taking up causes and pushing them in letters to the papers was a long-established custom of Conan Doyle's. He was knighted not for his literary work but for his services as a civilian doctor in the South African war, and especially for his subsequent defence of the British troops against continental charges of brutality in that war. Also, in at least two criminal cases where he suspected there had been wrongful convictions he did detective work of his own, and proved his points.
In his personal life Conan Doyle seems to have been simply, in the idiom of his time, a thoroughly decent chap. His first wife was someone he liked but was never in love with. But he was a devoted husband and good companion to her, and remained so when she fell mortally ill. She lived another thirteen years, and he stayed faithful even when, four years into the illness, he fell in love with a young woman who fell equally in love with him. They doggedly continued a platonic friendship until they were free to marry. And then they lived happily ever after.
There were occasions when this gentle, virtuous man did show anger, usually when somebody contradicted his spiritualist beliefs. "When I talk on this subject I'm not talking about what I believe," he said testily. "I'm not talking about what I think, I'm talking about what I know." It's hard for most of us to imagine how one trained in a scientific profession could accept, or even be interested in, the vague statements about the afterlife conveyed by mediums during séances. But it happens. Conan Doyle's older contemporary, the very eminent physicist Sir Oliver Lodge was a true believer. And someone I know well, trained as a chemical engineer and with a wide knowledge of many scientific fields, is always ready to believe any testimony about supernatural events. So was Conan Doyle. He instantly accepted (as Oliver Lodge did not) the photographs produced by two schoolgirls in Bradford purporting to show dancing goblins and flying fairies-so obviously pictures from children's books superimposed on landscape photographs. What goblins and fairies had to do with the human afterlife isn't clear, at least to an unbeliever.
But Coren declines to dismiss this stuff. "A man who was sufficiently gifted and brilliant to invent and develop Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, qualify as a doctor, and suggest military reforms far ahead of their time surely did not have one gargantuan weak spot when it came to his personal belief in life after death and the supernatural." To which I can only say, why not?
In dealing with his fiction, Coren does what Conan Doyle would have deplored: he overemphasizes Sherlock Holmes, making some comment on each of the stories. Holmes, of course, is a successful creation; yet he is not so much a character as a collection of attributes. This is well put in a passage from T. S. Eliot that Coren quotes: "He is obviously a formula.. Yet.he is just as real to us as Falstaff or the Wellers." What oft I've thought but ne'er so well expressed.
In the epilogue to the first detective novel that was truly a novel, The Wrecker (1892), which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson explains why they wrote it:
"We had long been attracted and repelled by that very modern form of the police novel or mystery story.; attracted by its peculiar interest when done, and the peculiar difficulties that attend its composition; repelled by that appearance of insincerity and shallowness of tone, which seems its inevitable drawback. For the mind of the reader, always bent to pick up clues, receives no impression of reality or life, rather of an airless, elaborate mechanism; and the book remains enthralling, but insignificant, like a game of chess, not a work of human art."
I have often wondered if Stevenson, who moved to Samoa about the time that the first Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet, appeared, had read any Holmes stories and was thinking of them here. Coren quotes from an amusing letter that Stevenson wrote to Conan Doyle, which proves that he did read the early stories.
Coren's comments on the Holmes stories are generally well judged, though I do feel he overrates "The Red-Headed League": "It is not hyperbole to say that this is one of the sharpest and most satisfying pieces of detective fiction ever written." That is hyperbole; the story is very funny but quite unbelievable.
The rest of Conan Doyle's fiction gets much shorter shrift. Coren does give a paragraph to the Brigadier Gerard stories, and says that Gerard "was the only truly and consistently amusing character created by Conan Doyle and one that deserves to stand the test of time." Well said; but there's so much more to say. These stories rank high on my list of the best historical fiction ever written. Gerard is a Napoleonic hussar who in his old age sits in a café reminiscing about his glorious past. He is dashing, brave, skilful, and deeply stupid: Napoleon is made to say of him, "If he has the thickest head, he has the stoutest heart in my army." The result is that often the story he thinks he is telling is quite different from what the reader sees is actually happening. The effect is wonderfully comic, and yet the picture of war is honest: the blood and the suffering are real.
The White Company is a tale of Edward III's wars in France. It's an interesting sidelight on Conan Doyle's adoptive English patriotism that he thought "the days of Edward III constituted the greatest epoch in English history-an epoch when both the French and the Scottish kings were prisoners in London." It's a good novel, disfigured only by the excessive use in the dialogue of what Fowler called Wardour Street English-that is, fake antique. Conan Doyle must have realized this, because in the sequel, Sir Nigel, the fault is much less pronounced. The attitudes of Sir Nigel and his knightly friends, their fantastic notions of honour, may seem unreal, but they are fully borne out by Froissart's Chronicles. So I don't know what Coren is thinking about when he says that "Conan Doyle could not resist throwing in a caricature or a historical cliché, ruining all his efforts to create mediaeval verisimilitude." The only anachronism I can find in these books is the tiny and unimportant one that his knights carry shields, which with the advent of full plate armour they didn't.
Coren has little to say of the stories collected in The Conan Doyle Stories, issued the year before the author died and representing what he most wanted to be remembered for. In fact the only one he mentions is "The Great Keinplatz Experiment", and that only to quote a passage illustrating the spiritualist view of hypnotism-that under hypnosis the spirit leaves the body and wanders about the neighbourhood. The story itself is intended to be comic: a pompous professor performs an experiment in double hypnosis on himself and a wordy student, and the two spirits return to the wrong two bodies. In fact it's an echo of F. Anstey's outrageous comic novel Vice Versa. (In December 1882 Anthony Trollope's niece read it aloud to him, and he laughed so hard that he suffered the stroke that killed him.)
Coren tells us how Conan Doyle interrupted his medical course to take a post as ship's surgeon on a whaler, and quotes from his journal of its seven-month voyage to the Arctic and back, but doesn't mention the haunting story based on this experience, "The Captain of the Polestar". The quality of The Conan Doyle Stories varies greatly, but some are outstandingly memorable. There are the tales of the fiendish pirate Captain Sharkey, which are spoiled only a little by ending up with two stories in which Sharkey comes to two quite different bad ends. (Conan Doyle frequently forgot what he had written previously.) Under the heading of "Tales of Terror", there is the genuinely terrifying "The Brazilian Cat" and under "Tales of Long Ago", the wonderful "Through the Veil" and "The Silver Mirror".
In comparison with Coren's fine and vigorous life of H. G. Wells, I find this one just a little flat, and suspect that he didn't find the consistently virtuous Conan Doyle as continuously interesting as Wells, with his mixture of high ideals and loathsome attitudes, and that he had to push his way through the book. But I'm glad he did.

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