Book review / Hope's first case

The Doctor, The Detective And Arthur Conan Doyle by Martin Booth, Hodder pounds 20

The Case of Conan Doyle (writes Dr Watson, or, as he was provisionally named, Ormond Sacker) was one of the most intriguing ever to come the way of Sherlock Holmes or, as he nearly was, Sherrington Hope. It began in the August dog days of the year 189-, when Holmes had just returned from tracking down a cocaine dealer and buying up his entire stock. "Tell me, Watson," he remarked, tossing aside the latest hardback from Mssrs Hodder & Stoughton, "what you know about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle."

"Conan Doyle?" I queried, oiling the revolver I knew I always needed when Holmes asked this kind of question.

" 'Doyle' really," replied the Great Detective. "Oddly enough for a no-nonsense chappie who was going to refuse his knighthood until his mummy told him that would be rude, his name might not have been quite as double- barrelled as he gave out. But you will find his byline in that back-number of Gas & Water Gazette. "

"Oh, that Conan Doyle!" I cried. "His first commissioned article covered the subject of 'Testing gas pipes for leaks', did it not? I know precious little apart from the fact that he was born in Edinburgh in 1859 to poor though respectable parents: that is, an artistic father turned alcoholic civil servant and a self-denying mother. After going to a school run by sadistic priests, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He spent short periods as the surgeon on a ship which traded in umbrellas. When he set himself up as a GP, his first patient turned out to be the man who had come to read the gas meter and his practice never really took off. A keen sportsman, he was a skiing pioneer. He was also known to the law, appearing for the defence in the case of R v Roy the Dog, when his collie was up on a charge of sheep-slaughter. There was something about fairies, too," I added. "He was convinced there were several at the bottom of someone's garden. He was heavily involved in medium studies, ESP and so on."

"Let us hope that his first wife does not return from beyond the grave to bring up the subject of the second Mrs Doyle," snapped Holmes grimly, "a woman whom he had long loved while still caring for his terminally ill first spouse. But, unless I am very much mistaken, we have reached that point in the conversation when I say, 'Unless I am very much mistaken, here he is upon the stair ...' "

At this juncture a tall, athletic, moustached man crashed through the door and hurled himself at Holmes. Scarcely had I put a .45 bullet through my own foot than our intruder had been knocked to the floor and trussed up with his own stethoscope.

"Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle," sneered Holmes, "I charge you with attempted murder - twice. The evidence is here in this highly readable biography by Mr Martin Booth. Watson and I were too successful. Readers queued round the block for the latest story in Strand Magazine. But you decided that this was interfering with your reputation as the writer of historical epics like The White Company and Sir Nigel. You became careless: was it 'John' or 'James' Watson? Then you shifted from the seven per cent solution - the strength of the cocaine you inflicted upon me - to the final solution."

"I paid my debt to society," Doyle muttered. "I killed you off on the Reichenbach Falls, causing readers to wear black armbands and cancel their subscriptions. But I brought you back to life in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes."

"What I had in mind was a suggestion raised by the excellent Mr Booth. You received pounds 35 for each of the first six short stories. When you demanded 50 sovereigns for every one thereafter, were you seeing what the market would bear - or quoting a price that you hoped would be refused, giving you an excuse to drop the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street for good?"

"Are you seriously suggesting, Holmes, that we are not real people but figments of another's imagination?" I burst out. "That will be news to the folk who address letters to you at Baker Street and ask you to solve real cases."

"We exist as much as any single character in popular fiction," replied Holmes. "But I must put one more question to Sir Arthur - about the dog."

"The Baskervilles' hound?" asked the author, "or the dog that did not bark in the night?"

"No," retorted Holmes, "your collie Roy, in the dock for sheep-worrying."

"Not guilty," smiled Conan Doyle. "He padded out of the court without a stain on his character, thanks to my handling of the case. It's elementary when you know how."

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