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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried