Julian Symons provides a concise account of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose active life and varied canon have been overshadowed by the fictional adventures of his famous detective. After devoting the first chapter to Holmesiana (the models for Sherlock and Dr. Watson, other crime fiction of the 1890’s, and speculations about Sherlock’s enduring appeal), Symons proceeds to a chronological account of Doyle’s life, occasionally pausing to assess Doyle’s literary achievement. Symons is impressed by his subject’s tenacity in overcoming family trauma and professional hurdles. Tracing Doyle’s rise to preeminence as a man of letters who could speak as a national seer on legal, military, or spiritual issues as well as literary ones, Symons concludes that Doyle is “the ideal representative of the Victorian era.” Especially intriguing is Symons’ attempt to understand how the creator of the ultimate rationalist Holmes was later duped into espousing the most fraudulent form of spiritualism.
Symons’ biography has several virtues. It is concise, almost terse, less than 150 pages long. Eighty-seven period photographs and drawings make vivid the Victorian milieu that Doyle personifies. The simple bibliography is a handy checklist, while the chronology is a useful quick reference to Doyle’s life and career.
Nevertheless, Symons’ study disappoints. The title echoes James Joyce’s seminal, sensitive novel about artistic temperament, but Symons offers no insight into Doyle’s creative process. In fact, Symons explicitly labels Doyle a storytelling craftsman who never became a true artist. If Symons’ assessment is straightforward, the title is then inaccurate and pretentious. The book is a reprint of a 1979 British edition which has apparently not been revised, enlarged, or updated to reflect recent scholarship. For the beginning student, casual reader, or Baker Street aficionado, however, the book is attractive, informative, and undemanding.