Monday 25 July 2005
Miles Kington: When the writer becomes the star
'Usually, the fictional creation outshines the creator,' said Pranger. 'But now Conan Doyle has bounced back'
We all groaned inwardly. Pranger was the biggest Sherlock Holmes bore we knew. Trouble was, Pranger saw Holmes as a personal rival. Pranger had been a private detective for much of his life - indeed, he was said to have learnt so many secrets about so many famous people that the establishment had only two options when he retired: have him assassinated or give him a peerage to keep him quiet. A peerage had seemed the easier, and cheaper, choice.
"Actually, it is not unprecedented to be given a peerage in return for a life in crime," he had said earlier that evening. "It happened to P D James. And Jeffrey Archer."
"What particular crimes of Archer are you thinking of?" someone asked him once.
"Vicious and violent crimes against style and grammar," chuckled Lord Pranger. "Throw another log on the fire."
It being midsummer, the fire was not alight, but we had humoured him and piled the fireplace with logs.
"What Conan Doyle business?" I said now.
"Well," said Pranger, "it's very odd when the writer becomes the star. Almost always, the fictional creation outshines the creator. Harry Potter overshadows Rowling. James Bond is big, Ian Fleming is small. Who remembers who created Tarzan? And until now Conan Doyle has been blotted out by the wretched Sherlock Holmes. But suddenly, Conan Doyle has bounced back.
"There was a novel which came out the other day by Julian Barnes, all about a real-life case in which Conan Doyle really did help to prove that a man had been wrongfully imprisoned. Conan Doyle as true life Sherlock Holmes. Good story. Surprised it hasn't been turned into a musical by Lloyd Webber or Ben Elton. And then there is this renewed attempt to prove that Conan Doyle was a murderer."
"Murderer?" said someone, surprised.
"Yes. People have always known that the idea for the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles was dreamt up by a friend of Doyle's called Fletcher Robinson. In the first edition, Doyle actually credits it to him. But when the book became a bestseller, it was too late to cut him in on the profits, because Robinson had upped and died. And there has always been a theory that Conan Doyle did away with him."
"Slipping him various fatal drugs known only to a doctor, while Robinson was undergoing treatment for various things. They now want to dig up Robinson's corpse to test it for traces of laudanum."
"Will they find it?"
"That's not the point. The point is that Conan Doyle is being treated simultaneously as a hero, for rescuing an innocent man from prison, and as a villain, for having stolen a man's literary idea and then murdering him. Not bad for a man who has been dead himself since 1930."
"I can see what you're up to, Pranger," I said. "You're trying to bump up Doyle's reputation to do down Holmes. We all know you've always been jealous of Holmes."
"Not at all," said Pranger. "I'm just very impressed by Conan Doyle. What other crime writer has ever got someone out of prison? Has PDAlmighty Baroness James ever solved a real-life case? I don't think so. Has she even written a novel about Islamic fundamentalist crime? I don't think so."
"Did Conan Doyle ever?" I said.
"He certainly did," said Pranger. "The Tragedy of the Korosko, 1898. Set in Egypt. Features the kidnapping of Western tourists by Muslim terrorists. Way ahead of his time."
"A Sherlock Holmes mystery, was it?" said someone.
"Certainly not," said Pranger. "Holmes wouldn't have been up to it. But it reminds me of a case of my own in the 1970s. I had a practice in those days in one of the shadier parts of W11. I was visited one day by a senior member of the Tory government ..."
We had all often heard the story before, so we took the logs off the fire again, pelted him till he was unconscious and took taxis home before he could come round.
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