A case could be made that the most famous character in fiction is Sherlock Holmes. Everybody knows him, if not from the original stories, then from the countless plays, movies, and parodies. There is an international fan club, and the great detective still gets mail at his 221B Baker Street address in London. But his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was not so enthusiastic. Surely Holmes was the making of Doyle as a literary man, but six years after Holmes first appeared, Doyle wrote in 1892, "I am weary of his name." The public enthusiasm over the detective was, in Doyle's view, keeping him from writing the better things for which he wanted to be known, among which were his books and pamphlets in defense of the new religion of spiritualism. He failed in many of his non-Sherlockian efforts, and thus his most recent biography is called _The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle_ (Free Press) by Andrew Lycett. The author has made a specialty of literary biographies (Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling, Dylan Thomas) and has had a long battle with the complicated network of Doyle heirs (described here in an afterword) to produce a big and detailed portrait of a gifted and deeply conflicted author.
Doyle was born in 1859 in Scotland, of Irish parents. He was all her life devoted to his "Mam", perhaps excessively even by Victorian standards. Many of his words quoted here are from letters to her. His father was insane and an alcoholic, incarcerated for years in mental institutions. Doyle abandoned his family's Catholicism and as a young man claimed agnosticism at a time when the term and the idea was a new one, before eventually claiming spiritualism. Though Lycett covers Doyles other literary works, it is Sherlock who will always be most important. Doyle killed Holmes off and remained a popular author without him, but not as popular and not as wealthy, and the reading world rejoiced to learn that Holmes's death was only apparent, not actual, when the stories resumed. Lycett writes, "Becoming a spiritualist so soon after creating the quintessentially rational Sherlock Holmes: that is the central paradox of Arthur's life." Lycett has examined the paradox thoroughly, but probably it can never be fully explained. Doyle never mixed spiritualism into the Holmes stories. When Holmes encountered superstition, it was always with the understanding that there were rational, material explanations for what people had misinterpreted as the doings of the supernatural.
Lycett's book is excellent about Doyle's literary efforts and his eagerness to involve contemporary concerns into his fiction, even if he was careful not to mix his spiritualism with his famous detective. Lycett's extensive investigations into newly-available archives mean that we can know Doyle's whereabouts, budgets, and enthusiasms with sometimes day-to-day accuracy. Doyle was an anomaly in many ways, supporting and uprooting conservative British ideals in different spheres, and Lycett has done justice to his many non-literary interests. It is as the creator of his famous detective, however, that he must always be best remembered, and the many Sherlock fans will find a treat in this a detailed, far from elementary biography.
on January 8, 2008
In the middle of the 19th century, the man who would create Sherlock Holmes was born Arthur Ignatius Conan. He sprang from a large family of artists --- most of whom preferred paint as their medium over written words, but creativity was in his blood from the beginning. Full of curiosity as a child, he "soaked up tales as a sponge absorbs water." He read voraciously to help quench his uncommon thirst for knowledge. His characters' names came from as far back as his school days, where he met a fellow pupil named Patrick Sherlock and came across an interesting pair, the Moriarty brothers.
Despite his vivid imagination, Arthur embarked on a career path of medicine. Fortunately for Sherlock Holmes fans, he discovered that he was a mediocre doctor but a great writer. Oddly, although a man of science, his interests took him through phases of dabbling with the occult, studying hypnotism, playing with the Ouija board and toying with spiritualism.
"Becoming a spiritualist so soon after creating the quintessentially rational Sherlock Holmes: that is the central paradox of Arthur's life." It is possible that the introduction of Dr. John Watson was necessary to balance that out. Watson is more romantic, more human, more fallible --- sometimes even to the point of naïvete --- than Holmes. Together, they round each other out.
More than a mere biography, Andrew Lycett's book is a fascinating study in how a character is conceived, groomed and shaped into someone who readers demand to see more of. Conan Doyle possessed a very active, inquiring mind, which is well used in his beloved stories. He lived in a lively time of wondrous authors: Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, to name a few. So competition was fierce, but Conan Doyle's determination carried him through.
At the same time, much was going on in the world around Conan Doyle, which influenced the direction and tenor of Holmes's adventures. Brutal wars were brewing in an age of phenomenal inventions. Providence helped Conan Doyle survive the battlefront, the vagaries of travel, the caprice of young adulthood and several serious illnesses, one that threatened him within a breath of his life. His legacy came very close to fading before it took hold.
Sherlock Holmes didn't start out a finished character. Far from it. He evolved. Starting with the bare bones of the man, he was fleshed out into a caped consulting detective with a deerstalker's cap and a meerschaum pipe through the hands of illustrators, professors and even actors. His legendary logic appeared initially and honed itself into a rare and highly entertaining skill. Soon, it leaked out that Holmes had a drug habit. And this seemingly asexual man showed a contradictory side whenever he spoke of the one woman who ever truly captured his interest: Irene Adler.
Find out where Conan Doyle got his ideas, names, personality traits, and why he grew to hate Holmes --- enough to try to kill him. Conan Doyle's mother saved Holmes once, but Sir Arthur could only abide him for so long. However, he underestimated Holmes's popularity.
Andrew Lycett had a wealth of information at his disposal, which has enabled him to present Sherlock Holmes lovers everywhere with this very comprehensive account of the life and times of the man who created him.
--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers
on December 29, 2007
Mr. Lycett has written the complete and definitive account of Arthur Conan Doyle's life. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Doyle found himself imprisoned by the fame of his creation and wanted to be known for other things -- that was not to be. Few today know of his "new age" spiritualism which became more fervent after the death of his son in World War I. Contacting the dead became an obsession with him.
Some may know of his "Lost World" novel which predates "Jurassic Park" by 80 years. Fewer still are aware of his two successful campaigns to free unjustly convicted men from prison, using his gifts of deductive reasoning. Mr. Doyle was a remarkable man in whom the spiritual and the rational resided side by side. The biography is illustrated and a tad long, especially by the time the reader reaches the 1920's. Overall a fascinating read.
on December 16, 2009
Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation will be thrust back into the public eye this Christmas with the release of the big-budget Robert Downey Jr. vehicle "Sherlock Holmes". It seemed like a good time to read a Doyle biography, and this one is very good. John Dickson Carr's "authorized" 1949 biography is lively and still repays reading today, but Andrew Lycett's tale is denser, if drier, drawing heavily upon documents not available to Carr. Holmes and Watson aren't really the main focal point here; Lycett gives the duo their due, but he's every bit as interested in describing Doyle's other works, discussing the author's gradual absorption in the world of spiritualism, and detailing the doings of Doyle's extended family and circle of friends. The author's homework is appreciated, but I still prefer Carr's somewhat more loosely wound bio for its sheer readability.
on November 5, 2012
A highly detailed, exquisitely researched biography. I would not be surprised to find that Lycett invented both a time machine and a shrink ray so that he could spend every single day of Conan Doyle's life perched on his shoulder like a tiny biographer angel. Or demon, depending on your view of the book.
The text is very dense with a lot of information crammed into every sentence. This can be fascinating, if you are interested in the period being covered, or tedious, if that particular aspect of Conan Doyle's life leaves you cold. For instance, I greatly enjoyed the sections on Conan Doyle's medical and literary careers, but found myself frustrated by the in depth analysis of his spiritualism. It really is a matter of personal preference.
It should be noted that the title is accurate. This is not just a discussion of Conan Doyle, but of the times in which he lived. Learning about the philosophical movements, historical events, and influential figures which surrounded Conan Doyle can give you insights into how he became the writer he was. But for readers wanting a more stream-lined, Conan-Doyle-centric biography, this book will frustrate the life out of them. Moreover, readers expecting a major focus on the Sherlock Holmes stories may be disappointed by how cursory their treatment is.
However, if what you are looking for is a deeper understanding of Arthur Conan Doyle as a complete man (not just as the creator of Sherlock Holmes) and the era that shaped him you cannot help but be satisfied. And more than a little impressed by the astonishing breadth of Lycett's research.
Lycett takes complete advantage of recently released family papers, and although at first glance they seem largely like household account books that reveal how much money was spent on this and that in any given period, soon this accumulation of data grows a fascination of its own. We can see through a myriad of details how Conan Doyle, by his own literary labors, started out with nearly nothing and wound up one of the wealthiest writers of his day, living life in a nearly baronial fashion with everything he could dream of. Was this affluence worth the price he paid for it? In some ways, Lycett argues, he was completely happy and very much a man of his time, but his growing spiritual instincts show, some have argued, a guilt consciousness overtaking him, making his soul restless as those whose peregrinations through ectoplasm he studied night after night, the victim of some of the worst frauds the world has known.
I enjoyed the biography, though it is superlong and at the same time, rushed during the second half of Doyle's life, where so many things happened to him that Lycett's chapters devolve into mere laundry lists of "And then he," "and then he," without much analysis. But by then he has given us ample evidence with which to judge Doyle's character. I suppose no biography of the man could fail to examine his mysterious second marriage, and when the love affair between ACD and Jean Leckie began. They always put up a public front, as did their children, that no way did anything untoward occur between them while the first wife, tubercular Louise, was still alive. Lycett takes a middle ground, referring to Jean as Conan Doyle's "mistress" even while accepting that perhaps there was no sexual activity between them. It must have been a trying time for Jean, not to mention Louise! And much of ths strain fell on Louise's two children, Mary and Kingsley, whom Jean seems to have resented terribly and who she made sure were always being sent away to school or to spend their vacations far away from wherever she was. Conan Doyle comes off as sort of a man torn in two, but Jean seems just horrid in every way.
Lycett finds echoes of this central conflict in many of Conan Doyle's stories and novels, pointing to the way that the author of the Sherlock Holmes tales withdrew "The Cardboard Box" from a proposed volume of "Memoirs," even after it had been published in periodical form, because its tangle of illicit love affairs reflected too much of the lustful drives he himself was feeling but had, as a Victorian paterfamilias, to keep a dark secret.
Lycett ignores the current controversy about the authorship of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and does not so much as refer to the possibility that Conan Doyle had Fletcher Robinson "bumped off," though he does spend a lot of time, particularly in what is otherwise a very rushed account of Doyle's final 20 years, on his putative involvement in the Piltdown Man hoax. In his analysis of the George Edalji case, he shows us rather humorously that Conan Doyle's championing of the wrongfully imprisoned Edalji had many roots, not just the simple one of wanting justice done, including the fact that a fellow clubman had managed to clear a wrongfully accused man just the previous year and perhaps ACD wanted some of the glory too! All in all, a splendid book and one that will be much discussed in the years to come.
on January 25, 2008
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born in Edinburgh Scotland to native Irish parents. His father was a minor painter who died an alcoholic in a mental asylum. His formidable mother Mary was a smart and literate woman who relished telling tales to Arthur and his siblings.
Arthur studied and graduated with a degree in medicine from Edinburgh University where his favorite teacher was Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell would be his inspiration for his famous detective creation along with Oliver Wendell Holmes. Doyle went on a ship to the Artic in his 20th year serving as the medical officer. He enjoyed travel and adventure throughout his life. He loved America and often visited our shores.
In the 1880s he set up practice in Portsmouth becoming a prominent figure in the community. He married his first wife Louise with whom he had two children: Mary and Kingsley who died of disease in World War I.
Doyle enjoyed sport all of his life indulging in cricket, skiing in Switzerland, tennis, bicycling, motoring and golf. He was a macho man's man who was also a patriot loving the British Empire. He was friendly with such writers as Kipling, Stevenson, Meredith and Hardy.
In the 1880s and 1890's he produced his first Sherlock Holmes novels:
"A Study in Scarlet" and "A Sign of Four." The Holmes short stories were produced in the Strand magazine and were wildly popular. Holmes pooh-poohed these tales wanting to write historical fiction in imitation of his idol Sir Walter Scott. In this genre the prolific doctor produced such works as "The White Company" He often sought to kill off Holmes but the last tale of the detective would not be published until late in his life due to the love the public had for the man in the deerstalker. Holmes was also played on the stage by William Gillette and was seen in silent and early talkie films.
Doyle's wife Louise died from TB in 1906. The famous and wealthy author had already begun an affair with his second wife Jean Leckie with whom he was to marry and have three children.
Doyle participated in the Boer War and visited the front in World War. His last years were spent as an evangelist for spiritualism. He died in 1930 known today almost exclusively for the Sherlock Holmes tales he so disdained in his lifetime.
Andrew Lycett has authored several literary biographies including those of Dylan Thomas, Ian Fleming and Rudyard Kipling. He has written a good book on Doyle which is illustrated and researched being based on several of the recently released letters of Doyle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of many contradictions. A scientist who loved spiritualism. A married and settled family man who committed adultery. An icon to boys who often was far from home and family. An Irish heritage person who opposed the home rule of the Emerald Isle. A brilliant observer of life who was often duped by spiritualistic charlatans. A born Roman Catholic who did not like organized religion.
This book along with the recently published "The Letters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" will increase your knowledge of the genius behind the creation of Dr. John Watson and the inimitable thinking machine from Baker Street. One also gains in knowledge of the Victorian/Edwardian literary scene.
on October 10, 2012
How I looked forward to reading this biography based on the glowing reviews here! I'm glad, however, that instead of purchasing this book, I borrowed it from our local library.
The biographer does a pretty thorough job of describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle. It is apparent the work is based on excellent research, including the many letters of Arthur to his mother Mary. (For an excellent book, read Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters).
Nevertheless, I was quite dissatisfied with this biography. The author insists in using negative adjectives and adverbs to describe Doyle and his deeds, as well as Doyle's family members. "Peevish", "hard", "prissy", etc. are in common use, even when the evidence Lycett uses to illustrate his point do not read (to me) as peevish, prissy, reluctant, pompous, etc. at all. One gets the impression that Lycett really doesn't like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is certainly not a biography written with rose colored glasses. I'd argue that it is UNNECESSARILY negative.
Well-written toward the beginning of the book, it steadily declines in quality and style as the work progresses.
I'd recommend this biography to the following readers:
1. The person who has read all there is about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and can't rest until he/she's read every bio. available.
2. The person who has a relative or friend who is a goes on and on about how great A.C.D. is, and wants to have some smug comments about his life to enter into a baited conversation. (But I ask you, who in the world would fit this description? Perhaps 3 people in the world, and I'd hope they'd have better sense than to try to topple their friend's hero.)
3. The person who generally likes negative biographies and is repulsed by any sentimentality or positive spin in history.
For the person who LIKES Sherlock Holmes or his creator, or just wants a good, general biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, look elsewhere.
on January 8, 2008
Most know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only for his literary creation Sherlock Holmes, the detective that was born over one century ago, and does not show any signs of aging. In an effort to expand knowledge of Holmes creator, Andrew Lycett wrote this simply outstanding biographical work that is a must have for mystery readers as well as personal history fans. I was aware of some of the details and influences of Doyle prior to recieving this book as a gift at Christmas, but the insights/perspective gained on Doyle make this book a treasure.
Fans of the great detective are always on the the lookout for good material, and this book must be counting among their list. Other recommended reading would include The Crime Doctor, which includes new work by David Jacobs and provides complimentary insights to Lycett's book on the life of EW Hornung (also the creator of Raffles), and brother-in-law to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who so greatly influenced this work by Hornung in his creation of Doctor John Dollar, the physician-sleuth.
on April 24, 2016
Most readers are familiar with Conan Doyle’s famous character who solves crimes in Victorian London using forensic methods. Commentaries on Sherlock Holmes are legion, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing to this day.
Less known are the real-life cases investigated by Sir Arthur throughout his lifetime. People often came to him desperately asking his assistance in securing remedies for unjustly-convicted miscreants,
One such case that Sir Arthur investigated involved a 30 year old solicitor released from prison after serving three years of a seven year term for maiming animals near the village of Great Wyrley. The young man’s family was noteworthy in that George Edalji’s father, a Parsee, but converted to Anglicanism in his native India, was a minister in the village church in Middle England, which was not quite prepared for an Indian clergyman. He and his family had been subject to abusive letters over the years and when, in 1903, mutilation of cattle, sheep and horses occurred in the nighttime, his son George was arrested and accused of the crimes.
The evidence clearly was fabricated and false. George had a watertight alibi and with his very poor eyesight, it was impossible for him to walk over fields and railway lines to commit the offenses in the dead of night.
A campaign to secure his release was successful, but not so for a pardon. In 1906, George sent newspaper clippings to Doyle and asked for help. Sir Arthur arranged to meet Edalji at the Grand Hotel, Charing Cross, and was immediately struck by his myopia as Edalji was reading a newspaper. Sir Arthur attempted to have the case reopened, but not meeting with success, he wrote two articles for the Daily Telegraph. Finally public opinion convinced the Home Office to invoke a committee to review the case. While Edalji was finally exonerated, he was awarded no compensation for the three years he spent in prison, and the no blame was assessed to the police.
Conan Doyle was involved in other criminal matters, particularly that of one Oscar Slater, a ner-do-well accused of the brutal murder of an elderly spinster in Glasgow in 1908. Doyle took the case in 1925 after Slater was released from prison, writing a self-published book on the matter. Again he was successful in showing that the murder was in fact committed by someone else and covered up by the police.
The Norman Thorne case also attracted Sir Arthur’s interest in 1925. Although clearly Thorne was guilty of murdering his girlfriend and burying her body at his chicken farm, Doyle made an impassioned argument against capital punishment Thorne was convicted through the expert testimony of the leading forensic pathologist in England, Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
Other cases were referred to Doyle by the police: he was asked for his advice in the mysterious disappearance of crime novelist Agatha Christie. He, however, left the realms science, instead adopting the psychic approach, correctly predicting the safe return of the writer. Afterwards he advocated that every police force ought to employ an in-house psychic.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived a long and varied life, exploring topics outside of the well-known detective genre, including spiritualism, historical fiction, travel to exotic locales, politics. Sherlock Holmes, probably the best-known fictional character of all time, made his fame and fortune, much to his disappointment. His beloved historical fiction is today forgotten and his curious devotion to spiritualism during the last decades of his life seems not to have diminished his contribution to criminalistics.
Andrew Lycett’s biography of Conan Doyle is the latest of a vast number of commentaries written over the past decades by both students of the detective novel as well as literary scholars. Utilizing recently revealed Doyle papers, Mr. Lycett has written a vivid and sparkling account of an intriguing, arguably Victorian, writer who still fascinates readers in the twenty-first century.
Daniel P. King
Whitefish Bay, WI