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


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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: 9.3 x 6 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #700,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

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Customer Reviews

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Heard this author discuss this book.
mrs phillips
Stashower's biography is well worth reading for its glimpse into the Victorian Era and its description of a writer's life well lived.
Rea Andrew Redd
Teller of tales is a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes series.
R. Walker

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Rory Coker on May 15, 2001
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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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By D. S. Bornus on August 23, 2005
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Old Fisherman on August 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle was a complex and honorable man. Toward the end of his life he embraced spiritualisim as he did everything else, wholeheartedly, and this led to many people dismissing him as a crackpot. However, as author Daniel Stashower pointst out, such was not the case. Conan-Doyle really believed in life after death. This belief filled the void in his life that was left when he renounced his belief in the Catholic Church. Daniel Stashower has written an even-handed fair biography of Conan-Doyle. The book is well researched and Conan-Doyle comes to life on these pages. Conan-Doyle, of course, is best known for creating Sherlock Holmes but as Stashower shows Conan-Doyle wrote many more works of fiction and non-fiction in his long career. If you want to have an idea of what made the man behind Sherlock Holmes tick then I recommend this book highly.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By bibliomane01 on November 17, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Daniel Stashower's biography of Conan Doyle is well written, as one would expect from the author of the Houdini mysteries, but never profound. We are given the great man's public life without any deep examination of the inner man. The result is a rather straightforward narrative, interesting because Conan Doyle led a fascinating life, but with all the weight of a magazine profile. The complete absence of citations reinforces this impression, and there are no footnotes, although a comprehensive bibliography is included.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lev Raphael on August 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Poor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! Acclaimed for his creation of the supremely rational, preternaturally observant detective Sherlock Holmes, he spent many years in later life mocked for his belief in spiritualism, which he considered the "successor to traditional religious thought." Brave, headstrong, and reckless, Doyle was one of England's most vociferous believers in spirits, mediums, ectoplasm, messages from beyond the grave--and even fairies. He was a tireless lecturer on several continents, writing a raft of books on the subject and donating the royalties to various spiritualist organizations. His zeal may have been admired in some quarters, but it was almost universally derided, and in the last ten years of his life, it lost him most of his friends. What happened?
Daniel Stashower's well-written and highly entertaining light portrait of Doyle's career gives some simple but compelling answers. Though Scottish, Doyle was raised a Catholic, but abandoned his faith for agnosticism very early on. Yet he apparently was a born believer, just waiting for a cause. His inventive and appealing Sherlock Holmes stories never struck him as particularly worthy or important and he longed to give the world something of value (he also tried his hand at plays and historical novels). And like many other British citizens during World War I, Doyle suffered heavy family losses and ached for connection with his personal dead.
As Stashower relates with a brisk pace and gentle humor, warm-hearted Doyle's life reads as a succession of fiery causes. A formidable propagandist, Doyle would use his gifts as a writer and lecturer as well as his ever-growing celebrity to raise money and the public's consciousness time and time again.
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