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Leah Price

  • Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower
    Penguin, 472 pp, £18.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9373 1

Since Arthur Conan Doyle’s own lifetime, every mystery novelist applying to join the Detection Club in London has been required to forswear ‘Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo and Jiggery-Pokery’ along with ‘Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors and Chinamen’. Conan Doyle himself never did. In 1917, with a lacklustre medical career and three decades of best-selling Sherlock Holmes stories behind him, he announced that he had received messages from the dead. These exchanges continued for the rest of his life – and beyond, if you believe such sources as News from the next world: being on account of the survival of Antonius Stradivarius, Frederick Chopin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brontës, and of many of the author’s relatives and friends. Five days after his death in 1930, a medium enabled him to make a sold-out appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. Years later, his children still chose their cars on the basis of which?-style advice from their dead father (in life, one of the first drivers to be fined for speeding). During World War Two, Vichyite psychics joined forces with a London medium and a Himalayan astral brotherhood to relay messages from Conan Doyle, who reported an afterlife spent attending birthday parties and family reunions.

The spiritualist crusade, which embarrassed earlier fans, takes centre-stage in this biography by a card-carrying member of the Society for Psychical Research (from which Conan Doyle resigned when it refused to expel investigators of fraud) and fellow-traveller with the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. We watch Conan Doyle urging a movie camera on the girls who found fairies at the bottom of their garden in Cottingley; one waited until she was 81 – in part to avoid embarrassing her famous sponsor – before confessing to faking the photos with a pair of old hatpins. And we see him bank-rolling a Psychic Bookshop and stationing his daughter at the till. Few sales were rung up.

Content to repeat Conan Doyle’s own roll-calls of the SPR’s most droppable names (Alfred Russel Wallace and William James belonged, and Freud was a corresponding member), Daniel Stashower doesn’t discuss the wider impact of the spiritualist subcultures that emerged in the wake of the war that cost Conan Doyle a son and a brother. Like other recent biographies, this one doesn’t mention the extraordinary case in which a sitter sued a medium for the copyright to an automatic-writing message after Conan Doyle had failed to coax the two parties into an out-of-court settlement. (The medium won.) Nor does it convey any impression of how little Conan Doyle’s beliefs set him apart in social circles so crowded with otherworldly presences that Shakespeare’s ghost had to compete with Bacon’s for airtime. Stashower does, however, provide a lively account of the spiritualist and anti-spiritualist propagandists who crossed paths with Conan Doyle. His book’s most compelling character turns out to be not Sir Arthur (who comes across as a Watsonian gentleman more distinguished for decency than for brains) but his sometime friend Harry Houdini. Remembered today as an escape artist who was one of the first Hollywood stuntmen, Houdini was equally well known during his lifetime for his campaign against spiritualism. Houdini’s repertoire of magic tricks placed him in an ideal position to spot fraud: the ectoplasm often seen to extrude from mediums’ mouths, for example, bore a suspicious resemblance to the act in which he swallowed a needle and thread and showed spectators his empty mouth, only to pull threaded needles out from between his teeth a moment later. Conan Doyle returned the compliment, charging Houdini with surreptitiously drawing on psychic powers. Since there was no natural way for a straitjacketed man to escape from a locked trunk, the only possible explanation was that he possessed an uncanny ability to turn bones into ectoplasm at will.

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