Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Slaying Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley

There was a period in my life when I was reading so many mystery novels and was so deeply immersed in the lives of fictional gumshoes that I toyed with the idea of opening my own detective agency.  Such are the dreams and ambitions of 14-year-old boys.

My private eye education began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and, when I was in sixth grade, progressed to Agatha Christie.  But it wasn't until I discovered Sherlock Holmes that I truly fell in love with the genre*.

Today marks the birthday of Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I thought I'd honor the man by directing you to a review I wrote of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters for The Barnes & Noble Review six years ago.  Here's how the review begins:
      On November 22, 1891, after writing five Sherlock Holmes stories now considered enduring classics of the mystery genre, Arthur Conan Doyle sat at his desk composing a letter to his mother. He dipped his pen in ink and scratched these words onto the paper: "I think of slaying Holmes in the sixth & winding him up for good & all. He takes my mind from better things."
      Only three years after writing the first story featuring the world's greatest fictional detective and already Conan Doyle was tired of him! Creator and creation had a troubled, complicated relationship. Holmes may have been the millstone around Conan Doyle's neck, but he also put plenty of coin in his pocket. Once he'd set Sherlock Holmes in motion and the public latched on to the stories, Conan Doyle found himself shackled to the character forever. He never did kill Holmes; he only gave him a false death at Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls in 1893's "The Final Problem," then reluctantly resurrected him ten years later in "The Adventure of the Empty House." Over time, Sherlock Holmes has grown larger in the public's imagination while his author retreats farther into the shadows.
      Now, a trio of Sherlockian scholars -- Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley -- have done their best to bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back into the limelight with a biography told through his correspondence. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters collects hundreds of letters, many of them never before published, and annotates them with historical context, photographs and excerpts from Conan Doyle's works, including his own Memories and Adventures from 1924.
      About a thousand letters from Conan Doyle's 54-year correspondence with his mother were among his papers -- which had been locked away for a half century due to what the authors call "family disagreements." Before her death in 1997, his youngest child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, bequeathed them to the British Library, and now they arrive in our hands in this handsome and impressive biography.
      In these pages, Conan Doyle is a jovial man who skis in the Alps, plays cricket, pedals his newfangled Autowheel bike for miles across the English countryside, runs for Parliament, advocates the development of body armor during World War I, and volunteers to go into the thick of battle (though he is rejected time and again, because England cannot risk losing so valuable a writer). We see him take up the cause of George Edalji, a Eurasian attorney who had been arrested and convicted (unjustly, due to his race, Conan Doyle believed) for mutilating cattle; this case was the basis for Julian Barnes's 2006 novel Arthur and George. We watch him hobnobbing with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill. At every turn, Conan Doyle comes across as a man who is fully a product of the Edwardian era: arrogant, magnanimous, eager for adventure, and fully confident of what he believes will be his lasting fame.
Click here to read the rest of the review.

On a personal note, I can tell you that Doyle, Holmes and my own novel Fobbit are coincidentally and happily intertwined. I'll have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but for now I'll leave you with this tantalizing clue:

*I'm primarily a fan of novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction--stopping somewhere around Ellery Queen and Richard and Frances Lockridge--and only occasionally read contemporary mystery books, so I really don't know much about Nordic gumshoes, alphabetical PIs, or mass-produced books from the James Patterson Factory.

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