Book review: “The man who would be Sherlock- the real life adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle”

“The Man who would be Sherlock- the real life adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle” by Christopher Sandford.

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A century after his fame was at its peak, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life and his relationship with his enduring creation –Sherlock Holmes- is receiving new and fascinating attention. It was long assumed that Doyle’s Edinburgh medical mentor Dr Joseph Bell was the template for the character of Holmes. Doyle hinted as much himself but in this new meticulously researched book Christopher Sandford points out that Bell wrote a letter to his protégé in which he said “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it,” an opinion shared by Doyle’s son Adrian.

Sandford’s book not only backs up this assertion, it brings to light dozens of real-life cases in which Conan Doyle was invited to examine crimes. Many he actually solved, and in others cases he became a zealous campaigner against a miscarriage of justice. Perhaps the best known of these are the cases of George Edalji, (the son of an Anglo-Indian vicar in the west country, who was sent to prison on flimsy evidence for mutilating cattle), and the immigrant Oscar Slater, sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a spinster in Glasgow. In both cases his efforts won a pardon for the men but championing justice is not the best way of making friends. The Edalji case was prosecuted by the chief of police in the area, the Hon. Captain George Anson with whom Conan Doyle conducted a bitter correspondent over years and led Anson to question his sanity. His passion for justice often over-ruled a quest for popularity. Slater initially hailed Doyle as his saviour but after his acquittal refused to use his compensation to recompense those who had contributed to his defence. When Doyle took a poor view of this, the relationship soured.

Doyle’s passion for scientific method was equalled by his sense of honour and justice, especially if a lady was involved. The facets of many of the real-life cases cited by Sandford in this book seem to found their way into the Sherlock stories in one way or another. Typical is the case of Adolph Beck who was twice arrested and convicted of theft and Doyle was able to show that mistaken identity and sloppy police-work were at fault, plus the judicial and political establishment closing ranks. The portrait of the blundering Lestrade in the Holmes stories is a gentle version of the actual incompetence he uncovered in this and several other cases.

Doyle looked, and in some respects acted, like an Imperialist figure who fought in the Boer War. He was a teetotaller (perhaps because of his father’s death from alcoholism), devoted to his mother, and educated at a Jesuit public school (paid for by his uncle in Holland). But behind the military moustache was a radical heart. He turned against the creedal conservatism of Catholicism and used his A-list celebrity to joust with the Establishment rather than embrace it. He wrote “The sad truth is that officialdom in England stands solid together and when you are forced to attack it, you need not expect justice, but rather you are up against an avowed Trade Union, the members of which are not going to act the blackleg to each other, and which subordinates the public interest to a false idea of loyalty.”

Despite these views Doyle mixed with the great and the good. He received a knighthood in 1902 and was made deputy Lord Lieutenant of Surrey. His fame and career prospered, and he played cricket with top names like W.G. Grace, and co-wrote a play with fellow-Scot James Barrie which was scathingly reviewed by George Bernard Shaw. Both he and H.G. Wells became Doyle’s adversaries, both men held socialist views which were more sympathetic to socialism than Doyle. Among his other friends were the prominent scientists and literary figures who founded the Society for Psychical research. Spiritualism was an enduring interest since the 1890s and became for Doyle an alternative religion (and some would say, an obsession in the decade prior to his death in 1930 at the age of 70). Sandford rightly points out that his involvement with Spiritualism was not the death of his son Kingsley (who died of influenza which recovering from war wounds). The prodigious research by this author reveals the energy of Doyle as a letter writer and campaigner alongside a thriving career as a writer. Christopher Sandford has already given us “Houdini and Conan Doyle: friends of genius; deadly rivals” (which seeded a rather fanciful television series) and the latter chapters of this book take up the sad tale of how the warm relationship between the two men cooled as both men came to take polarised views over the paranormal.

One senses that Christopher Sandford has more sympathy with Houdini when writing about this last decade in Conan Doyle’s life but his portrait of the latter’s character is one of warmth and personal charisma. This may explain why some of Sir Arthur’s less credible utterances (eg. in support of the Cottingley fairies) did not totally undermine the public affection in which he was held.

Doyle may be said to have popularised not only scientific forensic methods but also those involving the use of psychics in criminal investigation. He was involved, for example, in using a psychic to determine the fate of Agatha Christie who mysteriously disappeared in 1926. Doyle was asked for his help by Surry police. Using a glove belonging to Agatha, a medium named Horace Leaf was engaged by Doyle, who determined the name ‘Agatha’ and that she would soon be found alive (which she duly was).

In 1888 , Dr Joseph Bell and Doyle both looked at the evidence in the infamous Jack the Ripper case. Both men separately wrote down the name of their preferred suspect (of which many were flying around , including the Prince of Wales) and put these in sealed envelopes. When they were opened later they both contained the same name (James K Stephen, an Old Etonian and tutor of the Prince’s son, who died in an insane asylum in 1892.

Christopher Sandford has catalogued these and an amazing number of real-life cases undertaken by ‘Sherlock Doyle’ many of which were hitherto little known such as the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. Did the Great War turn Conan Doyle into a ‘moonstruck visionary, credulous and incapable of seeing clearly’? The author quotes the detective writer and respected biographer of Doyle, John Dickson Carr, who believed that Doyle’s achievements as a military historian and his practical contributions in areas such as the improved design of body armour and adoption of tactics to counter U-boats were hardly the neurotic ravings of a religious maniac. “He may have been right about Spiritualism or he may have been wrong, but nobody can say he was far wrong about anything less”, Carr wrote.

Arthur Conan Doyle emerges from these pages more likeable, more admirable and more talented than many realised. It demonstrates that Sherlock was part of Doyle’s own personality, one which combined a passion for scientific enquiry with an equal passion for honour and justice.

Stewart Lamont, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre Trustee, July 2107

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