The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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9780312242510: The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This entertaining, smart biography of Arthur Conan Doyle presents a modern day interpretation of the man who, contrary to his best efforts, will always be known as the creator of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was, however, much more, as Booth shows us in this intriguing study of a man who thrived on the times in which he lived. While Holmes fans will be captivated by the various tidbits that offer insight into their hero's creation; others will be fascinated by this living embodiment of the Victorian masculine ideal.

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Review:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography: "I have had a life which, for variety and romance, could, I think, hardly be exceeded." In the years since his death, Doyle has been almost uniquely identified with his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, who remains among the world's most identifiable figures, fictional or real. Doyle was much more than the author of the Holmes stories, but his very success with the series has clouded nearly every attempt to address his life. Martin Booth's The Doctor and the Detective redresses the balance. It's the first full-fledged biography of Doyle, the first one not distorted by the lens of his Holmes stories. Through Doyle, it offers an entertaining vision of the Victorian values that underlie the stories, and it also illuminates the "variety and romance" of the author's life: as a military doctor, a war correspondent, a spiritualist, a cricket player, and a worker for social justice.

Booth begins with Doyle's grandfather, political cartoonist John Doyle, whom he sees as the pivotal fount of the family's artistic genius. He quickly moves through a description of Doyle's Jesuit schooling and his early talent for spinning stories. Later chapters examine his discovery of the short story through reading Edgar Allan Poe, his struggles and successes as his family's first medical doctor, and his eventual recognition of the need for a new kind of fiction with "a scientific detective, who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal." But, as Booth shows, the publication of A Study in Scarlet in November 1887 was not the defining event of Doyle's life. As the novella emerged and developed a small following, he entered politics and championed the Irish Liberal Unionist cause. That same year he began experimenting with telepathy and published his first letter in the journal of the London Spiritualistic Alliance. This latter interest would do as much as--if not more than--Holmes did to shape the rest of Doyle's rich life.

Doyle's papers, briefly available to scholars, were subsequently withdrawn. Studies based on those papers have been tightly controlled by the Doyle estate, so much of the most private material has never seen print. Despite that obstacle, Booth has done an excellent job of sifting through all of the public information about the author, his family, and his associates to assemble a highly readable, often entertaining narrative. What emerges is a portrait of a powerful man who helped define the character of popular literature in the 20th century. Booth's book will likely remain the definitive biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle until the author's papers are released in their entirety. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Kirkus Reviews:

A discursive, anecdotal life of the prolific creator of Sherlock Holmes by the equally prolific Booth (The Industry of Souls, 1999, etc.), who seeks here to put the bluff Sir Arthur on the same pedestal as the giants of English literature. Because the largest collection of Doyles papers has been kept from scholarly review by his heirs, every biographer who has knelt at the physician-turned-writers shrine has had to speculate on crucial details about Doyles relationship with his dissolute father, Charles, a failed illustrator who died in an asylum, and with the mysterious lodger Bryan Waller, who saved the struggling family from an Edinburgh poorhouse and might have fathered one of Doyle's sisters. Questions also persist about the sources of Doyle's inconsistent attitudes about science, spiritualism, racism, and womens suffrage. Moreover, Doyles rags-to-riches adventures as a world traveler, photographer, physician, wartime correspondent, amateur detective, patriotic booster, and, finally, writer of some of worlds best and worst genre fiction are so varied that every biographer buckles under the wealth of detail. Booth too often raises important clues to Doyles character only to abandon them in his rush to squeeze everything in. Still, he manages to set some records straight (Doyle had literary aspirations long before he became a physician; Sherlock Holmes was based on more originals than Joseph Bell, Doyles favorite medical school teacher), reprint some legends (though he spent months on research, at his peak Doyle could finish a novel in less than a week), celebrate his heros triumphs (Doyle was knighted for his pro-British pamphleteering during the Boer War, not for his writing), mourn his embarrassments (an ardent believer in the supernatural, he was easily duped by cynical magicians and fraudulent mediums), and explain his enduring popularity. Doyle emerges as an honorable pillar of Victorian pride and prejudice, even when he wrote ineptly and let others play him for a fool. (40 b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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