‘The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’ by Russell Miller
I’m ringing in the new year with biographies, which are proving an excellent ladder out of my non-reading pit of the last few months. Russell Miller’s The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle is the first on my list and it proved to be an appropriately entertaining biography to end 2016 and ring in 2017.
Miller, the first biographer given access to papers held by the Doyle family, divides Conan Doyle’s life into three, roughly equal parts: the Doctor, the Writer, and the Spiritualist. The first is the most satisfying as Miller’s unexcitable style fits best in retelling the childhood and early career of a country doctor. The latter two sections are slightly more dissatisfying as Miller continues to present the facts with little embellishment or noticeable excitement despite the increasingly noteworthy happenings in his subject’s life.
The Writer section of the book sails gently through Conan Doyle’s literary celebrity as the creator of Sherlock Holmes with, one imagines, the same ambivalence towards Holmes that Conan Doyle himself felt about his famous creation. Equal time is spent discussing Holmes, The Lost World, and Conan Doyle’s many (and now mostly forgotten) historical epics and histories of then-current affairs. I appreciated Miller’s even-handedness, but Sherlock Holmes is an undeniable cultural touchstone. To spend so little time on his creation and Conan Doyle’s stories seemed a little odd.
The Spiritualist section of the book ends even more disappointingly: abruptly and with Conan Doyle’s death. An epilogue describes his funeral and then the book is over. This leaves any number of loose threads hanging, not least of which that of his Spiritualist wife, Jean.
Jean was a Spiritualist convert won over by her husband’s missionary zeal for Spiritualism and she eventually became a medium herself. Miller’s biography, clearly unimpressed with Jean from start to finish, leaves her at the funeral, the rest of her life a blank. Did she try to reach Conan Doyle from the beyond? Or was her Spiritualism all a show, abandoned after his death? And what of their children? The rest of the family?
There is a lively supporting cast of characters dancing at the edges of The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, but many of their intriguing stories are merely hinted at and there is no epilogue for any of them. Miller is singularly focused on his subject’s timeline and, with the final mark in place, makes no effort to go a step beyond Conan Doyle’s death.
(Conan Doyle, one assumes, would have been rather disappointed at this lack of Spiritualist sentiment.)
Arthur Conan Doyle, by any measurement, led a remarkable life — born in the middle of Victoria’s reign, he hunted whales in the Arctic, served in the Boer War as a medic, led crusades against everything from divorce laws to individual cases of injustice in the criminal justice system, rose from poverty to become one of the richest men in England, and, of course, created one of the most famous fictional characters in history — and Miller’s biography plots every stop along the way. In that sense, it’s a great read: entertaining, quick, and varied.
But Miller’s biography also lacks imagination and mostly fails to inject real feeling into any of Conan Doyle’s escapades. It’s kind of like a well-written timeline, fleshed out from a strict recitation of dates, but only by a little.
That said, I enjoyed reading it and learning more about the mustachioed gentleman who created Sherlock Holmes. I suspect there probably is some kind of cultural history of Holmes out there that would be an excellent companion to Miller’s biography, which feels like a starting point rather than something comprehensive.