Looking for clues - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Looking for clues

Any biographer seeking to do a spot of detective work on the creator of Sherlock Holmes will need either the deductive powers of the master sleuth himself, associates in the world of commercial espionage or the perspicacity and dedication of a latter-day Dr Watson; because the most valuable and comprehensive Doyle archive is closed to prying biographical eyes. What remains are the merest gleanings of a complex and captivating man whose life was as exciting and as intriguing as any of the cases presented to his creation.

Arthur Conan Doyle was the third child and the first son born to Charles and Mary Doyle in Edinburgh in 1859. His mother was 21, his father a civil service architectural clerk in the Office of Works and a Sunday painter of some merit.Despite their genteel impecuniousness, the Doyles gave their children, and especially their first-born son, the best opportunities they could afford. He was taught by his mother to read at an early age and became an avid bookworm. Both parents being intellectually curious, Arthur was encouraged to question whatever he did not understand and to seek always to gain knowledge. At the age of nine, his mother, believing that the local school did not sufficiently cater for her son's Catholicism, sent him to Stonyhurst. It was a financial burden which could have been lifted had Arthur's father agreed to sign away his son as a future priest: fortunately, he chose not to.

A born sportsman, Arthur did better on the pitch than in the classroom but, after a stay in Germany as a language pupil, he returned to Scotland where his parents decided he should enter a safe profession and he enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh University. Working his way through university as a doctor's assistant, and after a stint as ship's doctor on a whaler, he entered general practice in Plymouth then moved to Southsea where he set up his own surgery, lectured to the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society, captained the local cricket club and started to write. His output was prodigious and ranged from short stories in Boy's Own Paper to learned articles in The Lancet.

In 1885, he married Louise Hawkins, the sister of one of his patients. She was intellectually his inferior and their marriage, although it lasted until her death, was not a loving one. Doyle preserved his true affections for another, Jean Leckie, whom he married after Louise's death. At the same time as he started to write, Doyle became fascinated by spiritualism, a cause he was to espouse for the rest of his life - and one of the greatest enigmas about the man. A rational-thinking scientist by training, by now a lapsed Catholic, he was convinced the soul lived on after death and could materialise through a medium. In later life, Doyle travelled all over the world lecturing on spiritualism and seeking out its frauds, so the true mediums could gain veracity. He also believed in fairies.

Within a year of his marriage, Doyle submitted the first Sherlock Holmes story to London publishers. Two rejected his work but the third paid him pounds 25 for it: "A Study in Scarlet" was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. It was the best story in the book, gained critical acclaim and gave birth to one of the world's most endearing literary characters and an entire genre of fiction.

Success spurred Doyle on to other things. He wrote a large corpus of ripping yarns of Imperialist derring-do as well as poetry, plays and studies of spiritualism. Away from the world of letters, he served at the age of 40 as a military doctor in the Boer War, tramped the Flanders trenches, guarded German PoWs, took up worthy causes such as the scandalous Edalji affair and the persecution of a medium accused of witchcraft, supported women's suffrage, was seminal in re-writing the divorce laws and was a prime instigator in the foundation of forensic science. In short, Doyle became a national figure, commanding in real terms far higher royalties than any British novelist before or since. He was the first of the literally "best-selling'' authors.

Sadly, Coren's biography does not quite live up to the "definitive" label it bears, for it suffers from a paucity of original research. His study is competent but it presents nothing new, relying for its sources on material which has been well picked over in the past, while omitting some pertinent details. The basis for Doyle's construction of Holmes, the true nature of the author's almost fanatical belief in the supernatural and his abandonment of Roman Catholicism, the underlying causes of his fierce patriotism and jingoistic imperialism, not to mention his contributions to medicine (some of which remain valid to this day) are not studied in any real depth. It is as if the biographer himself is arriving in Holmes's study in 221b, Baker Street, to present the barest skeleton of his dilemma to the great man whose role we must accept in extrapolating, assimilating, assessing and interpreting the many clues so as to dress the bones of the case with flesh. The trouble is, of course, we are not Sherlock Holmes, and we need more than clues.

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