Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered as the creator of the fictional “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes and as the author of sixty mysteries featuring that character. This is no small honor, as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have been popular with readers for more than one hundred years. The character of Holmes is almost universally recognized throughout the English- speaking world and beyond, with the stories translated into dozens of languages and Holmes’s image appearing in newspaper advertisements and cartoons, on playing cards, as figurines, and through other media. The stories are a genre unto themselves and have inspired numerous writers to add their own Holmes stories alongside Doyle’s “canon.” Scores of plays, radio programs, and movies about Holmes also have been created, as have games, college courses, and songs. The character of Holmes is so embedded in literary folklore that many people believe that he actually lived.
The Holmes stories made Doyle famous in his day. That work helped make the author wealthy and even played a role in securing for him a knighthood in 1902, but Doyle was a remarkable man who accomplished considerably more than creating and writing the character of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Doyle frequently bemoaned the fact that Holmes’s wild popularity obscured the author’s “higher” and “more substantial” works.
Daniel Stashower’s Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle portrays the writer in a way that Doyle himself would probably have appreciated. Only a small number of the 444 pages of text directly discuss what is sometimes called “Sherlockia”: the origin of Holmes’s name, the archetype of Holmes’s character, the relationship between the character of Dr. Watson and Doyle himself, and other well- established trivia concerning the Holmes tales. Instead, Stashower seeks to present Doyle’s life as he lived it, devoting relatively little time to the writing of the Holmes stories and focusing instead on his historical novels, his patriotic crusades, and in his later life, his spiritualism.
In examining these other aspects of Doyle’s life, Stashower removes the Holmes creator from the shadow of his creation. Stashower presents in bold relief a complex, remarkable man whom Sherlock Holmes fans often dismiss as merely the “literary agent” of the writings (supposedly written by Dr. Watson). Doyle is shown to be an ambitious and talented individual, whose strong values, sense of purpose, and unbending chivalry made him a popular and influential person in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
After very briefly describing Doyle’s lineage (he came from a family of successful artists, although his father was an alcoholic who was eventually committed to an asylum) and his childhood (impoverished), Stashower details Doyle’s training as a medical doctor, his efforts at writing during the long spells between patients, and his eventual transition to a full-time writer. The Holmes stories make up only a small portion of Doyle’s written work, which also includes historical novels, science fiction, poetry, nonfiction monographs, plays, pamphlets, and other writings. Some of these enjoyed a good measure of popularity, including his novels The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and Sir Nigel (1906).
Doyle remained a prolific writer for most of his adult life. With fame and wealth (provided largely through the Holmes stories), Doyle devoted his energies to a number of causes. For example, through public statements and writings he sought (with some success) to overturn the conviction of a man whom Doyle believed to be wrongly convicted of mutilating cattle and later was able to do similar service for a convicted murderer. In both cases, Doyle was seen as applying “Sherlockian” methods to clarify mysteries, prompting international attention to the cases and increasing his own reputation in the process.
With similar earnestness Doyle wrote pamphlets and essays to urge policy initiatives by the British government: encouraging the adoption of certain safety devices for the navy, calling for greater military preparations against the nascent threat of submarine attacks, opposing human rights abuses in the Belgian Congo, pronouncing on the negative consequences of the women’s suffrage movement, and suggesting ways for managing Irish demands for home rule, among various other issues. A...
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