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Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle Hardcover – April 13, 1999

4.3 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Despite (or because of) the tremendous success of his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always tended to play down their value and importance in his life. Just before his death in 1930, he drew a memorable sketch of his life's work. Conan Doyle portrayed events from his life as a series of packing cases being loaded onto a wagon and pulled by a flea-bitten workhorse. Perhaps the heaviest case of all, notes Daniel Stashower in his fascinating biography Teller of Tales, is the one that reads "Sherlock Holmes."

Stashower's intent is to show that Conan Doyle was not Sherlock Holmes, and that his life consisted of much more than the now ridiculed spiritualism to which he devoted much of his later years. He succeeds to a surprising degree, convincing us that The White Company and Sir Nigel (forgotten novels that Conan Doyle thought were his best) are indeed worth reading. As for the spiritualism, Stashower meticulously places his subject's long fascination with it into a compassionate and fully researched social context. We come away certain that Conan Doyle (along with many other worthy citizens of the period) really believed in it. --Dick Adler

From Kirkus Reviews

An elementary life of the writer, historian, and activist who wanted to be remembered as more than just the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Novelist Stashower (Elephants in the Distance, 1989, etc.), like many fans of the Great Detective, is somewhat disappointed that Holmess creator tried so hard to live him down. Still, Conan Doyle's latest biographer has immersed himself in all his works, from Professor Challenger's proto-sci-fi adventures, Brigadier Gerard's Napoleonic exploits, and assorted historical novels, to his detailed nonfiction and obsessive Spiritualist outputnot to mention, also, the authors phenomenally active life. The origins of Holmes are well enough known: for example, how the young Edinburgh-trained doctor, languishing in a Portsmouth practice, decided to write a detective story, basing his hero on his old medical school lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell. Stashower offers no revelations about this or other aspects of Conan Doyle's early life, though by keeping a clear sense of context, he does scour the self-deprecation that Conan Doyle cast over them later. Indeed, if Conan Doyle had not made the serious career error of trying to start an ophthalmology practice in London, Stashower argues, he might well have remained a general practitioner with a literary sideline. Even as Sherlock Holmes took off in the Strand magazine, the author valued other projects more, such as his historical novels. And as he turned his prodigious energies to other interestsfor instance, skiing in the Swiss Alps, running for a seat in Parliament, enlisting as a medical officer in the Boer War, campaigning against wrongful convictions (notably the cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater), and finally, SpiritualismStashower can suggest only that Conan Doyles crusading zeal served as a replacement for his early, lost Catholic faith and that his belief in the Cottingley fairy hoax could be rooted in his institutionalized father's own fancies. A doggedly thorough investigation, though missing a few psychological clues. (b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (April 13, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805050744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805050745
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #633,783 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Years ago I read the biographies of Conan Doyle by John Dickson Carr and Charles Higham, and even tried to get beyond Sherlock Holmes by reading as much as I could of Conan Doyle's other fiction. Therefore I thought I knew something about Conan Doyle as a writer and as a person, but Stashower's fine book was still a revelation to me; it's not an exaggeration to say that I found new insights into Sir Arthur on nearly every page.
Stashower has done his research, but he is also unafraid to use Conan Doyle's semiautobiographical fiction, not to mention his poetry, to provide windows into the inner Sir Arthur that Sir Arthur's own autobiography carefully conceals.
Sir Arthur, of course, created a character that (along with Tarzan) is one of the immortal icons of adventure fiction, a character as popular today as he was when his short stories first hit the STRAND Magazine like a thunderbolt. One thing everyone knows about Conan Doyle is how deeply he resented the fame of Sherlock Holmes, but even here Stashower has some startling information to relate.
He is particularly good on the last couple of decades of Sir Arthur's life, when his seemingly mindless advocacy of even the most infantile and transparently fradulent aspects of Spiritualism, and his output of nearly a dozen unreadable religious tracts, left almost all of his readers convinced he had lost his mind. His endorsement of the authenticity of some photographs of fairies supposedly taken by two little girls (who had actually cut the tiny figures out of very familiar magazine ads for Fairy Soap!), and his calling in a psychic detective to "solve" the not-very-mysterious disappearance of novelist Agatha Christie, were the final straws for even his most tolerant fans.
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Format: Paperback
This is a very readable and engaging biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. While many people only think of him in association with the stories of Sherlock Holmes, in fact Conan Doyle (his compound last name) was a multi-faceted man who grew up in poverty, became a medical doctor, served on a whaling ship in the Arctic, and worked in an Army hospital during the Boer War. He began his literary career writing stories for magazines, and one of these stories concerned a detective named Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes stories became popular, although Conan Doyle did not consider them serious literature and would come to consider the demand for this character as pulling him away from his efforts at more important works.

Conan Doyle lost many close relatives during WWI. Perhaps as a result of this he developed a deep interest in spiritualism, and this interest gradually began to absorb his life as he left off literary pursuits to advocate for spiritualist research via press and podium. This advocacy led many to lose their esteem for the creator of Sherlock Holmes since they assumed that Conan Doyle and Sherlock must be one and the same in personality and temperament.

I was interested to learn that Conan Doyle wrote his detective stories by determining the ending, and then working back toward it. Thus his character's "brilliant observations" and deductions were always carefully planned by knowledge of the solution before it was apparent to the reader. While Sherlock's powers of observation and deduction came to represent a paradigm of rational scientific proof, in reality they were an illusion working back from given solutions. In the same way, Conan Doyle would advocate for spiritualism by pleading for people to restrain their skepticism, and believe in order to know.
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I say Arthur Conan Doyle and you say Sherlock Holmes. But don't stop there. Doyle lived a very long, complicated and multi-layered life. This biography won the 1999 Edgar (Allan Poe) Award for Best Biographical Work and it generously explores the origins of Doyle's detective fiction, his science fiction, his fantasy fiction, his historical adventure fiction and his military histories. Sired by an alcoholic father, Doyle was born in 1859 to a Scots family with a very strong, enduring mother. He started as a very young whaling ship's doctor looking for adventure and soon afterward became a struggling provincial doctor who with few patients and time on his hands. He then decided to write his way out of poverty.

The extended Doyle clan were prosperous Irish-Catholic families, who had a prominent position in the art world. Charles Doyle, Arthur's father, a chronic alcoholic, was the only member of his family, who apart from fathering a brilliant son, never accomplished anything of note and was institutionalized for the greater part of Arthur's life. At the age of twenty-two, Charles had married Mary Foley, a vivacious and very well educated young woman of seventeen.

Mary Doyle had a passion for books and was a master storyteller. Her son Arthur wrote of his mother's gift of "sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper" when she reached the culminating point of a story. There was little money in the family and even less harmony on account of his father's excesses and erratic behavior. Arthur's touching description of his mother's beneficial influence is also poignantly described in his biography, "In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.
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