A case of missing identity
Byron Rogers CONAN DOYLE by Andrew Lycett Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 527, ISBN 9780297848523 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 This could have been a wonderful book. Take a scene from it which could so easily have been the start of a film It is the 1920s, and in the garage of a large stockbroker's mansion in the Home Counties two youths, the spoilt and jobless sons of a rich man, are noisily tuning a hell bat ( actually a modified Model T-Ford ), a car already capable of 100 m.p.h. Dissolve to the woods above them, to silence broken by tinkling notes.
Among the trees their elderly father is playing a musical box. A huge and powerful individual, with the sort of moustache then popular among army officers of field rank, he has, according to his earlier biographer Hesketh Pearson, 'no more mystery about him than a pumpkin'. The only thing is, the pumpkin is playing the musical box with one hand to attract beings whom, a camera in his other hand, he expects to photograph. This is Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, who believed in the solution of crime by scientific method, has himself come to believe in fairies.
And this is how that long, industrious life of the public man, the champion of lost causes, the cricketer who once got W. G. Grace out, the best-selling author known the world over, came to an end, in honours, gullibility, riches and farce. This could have been such a vivid book, but unfortunately that scene in the Surrey green belt occupies just two sentences in a single paragraph, and is lost among the 527 pages of this biography.
All the uncles are listed, the grandparents, the sisters and the education (we are up to page 50 before the man even leaves college), and all that is missing is what Conan Doyle himself found in Boswell, and which, ironically, his own biographer quotes. 'How often you read the life of a man and are left without the remotest idea of his personality. It is not so here. The man lives again.' But not here. That burly shape struggles to live again, but his biographer, like the ninthcentury historian Nennius, has made a heap of what he has found, and what we are left with is what Professor Roger Lewis has called `that trudge between the ancestors and the memorial service'. At a half, or a third, of its length it might have been fascinating.
The reason it was written is that Conan Doyle wrote books; there is no other reason. So while mankind, which can only bear so much reality, may also be unable to bear so much literary criticism, there has to be discussion of the books. Why were the Holmes books so popular that the last autocratic Sultan of Turkey, a man with a thousand concubines, used to have them read aloud to him in translation in what spare time was left? Was it mastery of narrative, or just the fascination of the main character, whose catch-phrase 'Elementary, my dear Watson' was actually supplied by a man who dramatised the stories for the stage? What did they have that a thousand women above the Bosphorus could not supply? I read this book through without getting an answer.
And why did Conan Doyle want to kill off his creation so early in his career, seeing Holmes as a brake on his ambition to be a historical novelist? Was he any good as a historical novelist? Not really. He could tell a good tale, but his characters, even in The White Company, were just men in fancy dress. He could not evoke the detail of the past as Kipling could, and he would not have dared rummage among the religious faiths on which so much of it turned, as that neglected genius John James has.
Only one thing has remained with me from Conan Doyle's historical fiction, and that is the story The Coming of the Huns', when a Christian hermit in the hills first hears, and then sees, the human swarm passing beneath him in the endless plains at the edge of Europe.
And why did Conan Doyle never really let loose the remarkable comic talents which he exhibited in the finest parody I have ever read, the spoof on George Borrow which he called Bon-owed Talents?; if you haven't read it, you have a great treat in store.
He seems to have regarded his whole vast output as just so much preparation for the great imaginative work he was convinced would come, and you are left with the suspicion that Conan Doyle may have been a bit thick, a suspicion that hardens when he embraces spiritualism hook, line and sinker, and impresses on every police force in the country the need to recruit a resident psychic.
He reveres Houdini as a conduit to the supernatural even though Houdini patiently reveals to him the trickery he is using. At a séance Houdini's dead mother addresses her son in English, and the fact that, as Houdini says, she could not speak a word of the language is a mere accidental detail to Conan Doyle. Details always were. He gives Moslem names to Sikh characters, and invents a new species of snake, the swamp adder, for his Holmes story 'The Speckled Band'.
After agreeing to submit to an examination for the secret Order of the Golden Dawn, he is told he need not attend this in person. The next thing is, he is awakened in the middle of the night by an electric shock, and is informed he has passed. There is some wonderful material in this book, but it all gets trodden down.
Even more irritating is the way no character, however minor, is introduced without a garland of completely unnecessary adjectives, of the sort hung round the necks of tourists by some South Seas tourist board. 'The bearded, bespectacled Besant.' 'A gangling US civil war veteran with goatee beard and nasal twang.' 'A gaunt, brooding man with a silvery beard.' The small, ruddy-faced Stattin."Jean had a trim figure, searching green eyes and cascading golden hair.' Jean is the second Mrs Conan Doyle; the first has 'sad contemplative eyes'. And so on, and on, past `the suicide of the gangling Reginald Smith', `the dapper building contractor', `the diminunitive escapologist', and Doyle's own 'gawky, bespectacled daughter'.
The best thing here is the Afterword, where the author describes the difficulties he encountered writing this book against a background of Doyle's descendants warring over his literary estate. It could have been written by another man, direct and humorous. The gawky, bespectacled one ended up, shorn of her adjectives, as head of the Women's Royal Air Force.