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Book review / From diagnosis to deduction

The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle by Martin Booth, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 20
A casual glance at the main events of the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can leave the enquirer with the stereotype of a Victorian gentleman adventurer, either in fact or fiction: patriotic, egregiously brave, given to war-like valour and foreign adventures; a notable sportsman, self-opinionated, obstinate, occasionally pompous, chivalrous and faithful in love, honourable and loyal. Even his early life conforms to the tradition of the self- made man struggling through early deprivation to honour and success. His father was an irresponsible drunkard and it was his mother, Mary Doyle, who was the most important single influence in her son's early life. She gave him her own love of history and literature, her instinct for story- telling and her insistence on honour and fair play. He struggled through five years of medical training and then set up in practice before finding his true and, finally, lucrative profession as an author.

But he was a more complex - indeed, enigmatic and in some respects contradictory - character than a recital of his qualities would suggest. Throughout his life he vigorously fought against injustice wherever he saw it, whether overseas in the Belgian Congo, or at home. Although no friend of female suffrage, he advocated reform of the divorce laws which he rightly saw as prejudiced in favour of men, and he campaigned vigorously and successfully on behalf of prisoners whom he considered had been wrongly convicted, notably Oscar Slater in 1912.

But for an educated man, particularly a doctor, he was curiously naive, even gullible. He came to his belief in spiritualism, the passion of his later years, after careful weighing of the evidence, but that did not prevent him being the victim of charlatans. At the end of his life he forfeited money, goodwill and admiration by his belief in fairies, taken in by a photograph which was little more than a childish hoax.

It was a full and interesting life, well lived, but it is doubtful whether either his virtues or his eccentricities would have justified this or previous biographies were it not for his creation of a single fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. This is not a judgement which would have afforded satisfaction to Conan Doyle. In placing this achievement in relation to the author's life, Martin Booth has had to rely on previously published records and material, since for some decades biographers have been denied access to Conan Doyle's private papers. Given this prohibition it would be unreasonable to expect new insights and fresh discoveries. Booth has written a conscientious and comprehensive account of his subject's life from the material available; if we wish to find our way to the essential man, we need look little further than his work.

Sherlock Holmes could be said to have been born on 8 March 1886 when Conan Doyle began writing a novelette. It was first entitled A Tangled Skein, later changed to A Study in Scarlet: "the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life". The novelette, initially rejected by a number of publishers, was finally sold outright to Ward Lock for pounds 25. It was an unpropitious appearance of the first major serial character in British fiction, and one who, through his author's astonishing success, was fundamentally to influence the direction of the modern detective story.

Conan Doyle was fortunate both in his timing - there was a burgeoning middle-class reading public avid for exciting fiction - and in his association from 1891 with the newly published Strand Magazine with George Newnes as its proprietor. The magazine was an immediate success, the first issue selling over 300,000 copies. Editorial policy dictated an illustration on every page, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were allocated their own artist, Sidney Paget, whose vivid line drawings perfectly complemented the character, and whose illustrations are still the definitive picture of Sherlock Holmes.

The stories were sensationally popular. Queues formed at newsstands on publication day, and Sherlock Holmes quickly became what he remains today: a household name.

The success of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not difficult to explain. They were exciting, dramatic and suspenseful. The two main characters, Holmes and Dr Watson, were contrasting individuals with whom the readers could identify. And in Holmes, Conan Doyle had created the archetypical hero who was nevertheless a true original; brilliantly clever, courageous, eccentric, physically compelling, and the possessor "of the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has ever seen".

The plots of the Holmes stories are ingenious but hardly credible. And Conan Doyle was careless about details. The dog that didn't bark in the night is mysterious, but less so than Dr Watson's dog, which disappeared completely. Inspector Lestrade changes his appearance dramatically between A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The chronology is sometimes confused, parts of London are inaccurately described, and the writing is occasionally slapdash.

None of this worried either Conan Doyle or his readers. A modern crime writer could wish that readers today were so accommodating. As the author wrote of the short stories: "Accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matters is that I hold my readers." He did hold them, and he does so still.