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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Arthur Conan Doyle, In Fact and Fiction

Margalit Fox’s new and well-publicized Conan Doyle for the Defense has put the creator of Sherlock Holmes in the spotlight once again. But, really, he has never been out of it.

This larger-than-life character has been the subject of dozens of books, both factual and fictional. I recently enjoyed one of each, neither of them new.

Mark Frost’s The List of 7 (1993) is an exciting thriller in which young Arthur Conan Doyle gets involved with well-placed occultists, a beautiful woman, and Queen Victoria herself. The book is packed with Sherlockian Easter eggs – characters and incidents that later become part of the Holmes saga, including a pair of brothers who suggest Holmes and Moriarty.  

Daniel Stashower’s Teller of Tales (1999) is perhaps the most readable biography of ACD, sympathetic to the subject but by no means sycophantic. Although Stashower explores the entire breadth of Conan Doyle’s extraordinary life, he devotes much attention to the conviction that eventually earned Conan Doyle some praise and much scorn as the “St. Paul of Spiritualism.”

As a young man, Stashower reports, Conan Doyle declared: “Never will I accept anything which cannot be proved to me. The evils of religion have all come from accepting things which cannot be proved.” Thus, when he investigated spiritualism – a phase that lasted for decades – he looked for proof. Once he was convinced, however, belief was enough.

“Years earlier he had lost has Catholic faith, but the need for faith remained,” Stashower says in a chapter called “Is Conan Doyle Mad?” near the end of the book. “At last, be believed.”

Once Conan Doyle believed in a principle or a person, he was unshakeable. That’s highly admirable. But at times he must have been very difficult to deal with!

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