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

What Stashower doesn’t make clear is how much sense Conan Doyle’s accusation made. By the late 19th century, professional mediums could forestall charges of fraud only by conducting seances under restraints more elaborate than any Houdini’s stage-managers ever dreamed up. Standard ‘test conditions’ required the medium’s wrists to be bound with tape and the knot to be sealed with wax, but refinements described in Alex Owen’s history of spiritualism include tying the medium’s ankles with leather straps padlocked to marble pillars, locking the medium in a wire cage, and (in one case) passing five yards of string through the unlucky medium’s pierced earlobe and attaching the ends to the outside of the cabinet in which she sat.

It’s not hard to see why society ladies balked at such arrangements. Conan Doyle’s fragile friendship with Houdini finally collapsed when the spiritualist bullied the illusionist into allowing Conan Doyle’s wife to convey a message from Houdini’s late mother. Before his own conversion to spiritualism, Conan Doyle had observed that amateur mediums placed sceptics in a difficult position:

With the paid performer you pounce upon him and expose him the minute you have seen through his trick. But what are you to do with the friend of your host’s wife? Are you to turn on a light suddenly and expose her slapping a surreptitious banjo? Or are you to hurl cochineal over her evening frock when she steals round with her phosphorus bottle and her supernatural platitude? There would be a scene, and you would be looked upon as a brute.

A gentleman could challenge a hireling more easily than he could insult a woman of his own social class – especially a friend of his host’s wife, or (in this case) the hostess herself. Houdini felt aggrieved at being entrapped into humouring the Conan Doyles out of politeness. Conan Doyle took even greater offence when Houdini’s diplomacy faltered long enough for him to ask why his mother, a rabbi’s wife, would begin her message with a sign of the cross. Soon the two men were communicating only through the letter columns of the newspapers. In a final gibe at Houdini’s ungentlemanly professionalism, Conan Doyle said that Houdini’s ‘Conjuror’s Complex’ – the belief that spiritualism depended on magic tricks – was as daft as the assumption that ‘manual dexterity bears some relation to brain capacity.’ Houdini responded by excusing Sir Arthur on the grounds that he was ‘a bit senile and therefore easily bamboozled’. Senile or not, Conan Doyle outlived Houdini, but waited in vain for a message from him recanting his unbelief. In contrast, the sceptical Jerome K. Jerome no sooner died than a medium received the order to tell Conan Doyle ‘that I know now that he was right and I was wrong’.

Some of Conan Doyle’s characters proved equally persuadable. The Land of Mist, a ham-fisted sequel to The Lost World, converts Professor Challenger from irascible rationalist to saccharine spiritualist over the course of several hundred improbable pages. Conan Doyle sacrificed more than verisimilitude to the cause: he risked his name, his money, his friends (at least during their lifetimes), and, in volumes like The Coming of the Fairies and The Case for Spirit Photography, his good sense. The one thing he held back was Sherlock Holmes. As late as 1924, in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, Holmes anticipated the Detection Club’s rules, insisting that ‘this agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. No ghosts need apply.’ Conan Doyle was no fool about business: Holmes declines fame and fortune with the refrain of ‘art for art’s sake’, but his author was one of the first to employ a literary agent. He must have known that his hero was of more use to spiritualism as a ‘milk cow’ (his term) than a poster boy. Not only did the proceeds of the detective fiction subsidise the running expenses of the Psychic Bookshop, but every new Holmes story supplied to the Strand was tacitly bartered for spiritualist access to its pages.

None of this necessarily means, as Stashower concludes, that Conan Doyle succeeded in quarantining the two sides of his career. (Or more than two: on top of detective fiction and spiritualist treatises, Conan Doyle also churned out historical romances, science fiction, political polemic, military history, autobiographies à clef, and an unpopular operetta starring a hypnotist enrolled in a ladies’ seminary.) Teller of Tales shows how hard Conan Doyle worked to keep ghosts out of the Holmes stories, but never considers the opposite possibility: that the stories’ mode of publication might have influenced Conan Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs. Holmes made his first appearance in the short novels published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual (‘A Study in Scarlet’) and Lippincott’s (‘The Sign of Four’), but it was not until Conan Doyle hit on the idea of serialising a concatenation of ‘cases’ linked by a common hero, rather than by any strict narrative sequence, that he became a bestseller. Conan Doyle later remembered realising that ‘a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine. On the other hand, it had long seemed to me that the ordinary serial might be an impediment rather than a help to a magazine, since, sooner or later, one missed one number and afterwards it had lost all interest.’ The key was to replace a suspenseful serial by an episodic series. What allowed each month’s installment to advertise the next was no longer narrative development, but on the contrary an unchanging cast of characters. For most of the previous century, serial writers had co-ordinated the passage of time within their novels to the succession of weekly or monthly issues in which installments appeared: the Pickwick Papers scheduled a love plot to coincide with Valentine’s Day, as soap operas do now. The Holmes stones reject this strategy. Although some later stories throw in token references to grey hairs, more often the series circles back to earlier cases, with the inexplicable disappearances and reappearances of Watson’s shadowy wives underlining the lack of any consistent chronological order.

That freedom from linearity was Conan Doyle’s undoing. Unlike a novel, a series of cases has no built in conclusions: nothing prevents an author from making more money by spinning out more episodes, and nothing stops the public from demanding sequels even when an author has become sick of them. This is what happened when Conan Doyle, who had never thought of Holmes as more than a sideline to his historical novels (like The White Company, now relegated to the children’s section of, pushed Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. Twenty thousand people cancelled their subscriptions to the Strand. Its publisher, a marketing genius best known for a Railway Insurance Scheme guaranteeing £100 to the next of kin of any commuter pulled from the wreckage of a railway crash still in possession of his weekly copy of Tit-Bits, soon realised how much the Holmes stories were worth, but even the fortune that he offered Conan Doyle to ‘resuscitate’ Holmes bought only half-hearted compliance. The Hound of the Baskervilles, produced eight years after ‘The Final Problem’, not only regresses to the book-length form of the earliest stories but is set before Holmes’s fatal struggle with Moriarty. Even when the series of Sherlock Holmes stories was resurrected, Sherlock Holmes the character was carefully kept dead. Only later did Conan Doyle cave in. ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903) revealed that Holmes had survived a miraculous crawl up the ravine of the Reichenbach Falls, wending his way back to Baker Street via Lhasa, Mecca and a laboratory in Montpellier devoted to the study of coal-tar derivatives. ‘So the old dog returns to his vomit,’ Conan Doyle later commented. Yet, despite his resolve that ‘this must cease’ and Holmes ‘must go the way of all flesh, real or imaginary’, the hate mail that greeted every stoppage of the stories conspired with the Strand’s bribes to maintain Conan Doyle as a Sheherazade fighting not for his own life, but for the death of his hero.

What does all this have to do with Conan Doyle’s spiritualism? My guess is that the commercial pressures of the Strand pushed him to test ways of constructing a story (or a life) that built up to no single endpoint. When he set out to explain the relation between this world and the next in The Land of Mist, magazines were the first analogy that sprang to mind. ‘ “To be continued in our next” is the conclusion of every life-story,’ one character remarks. ‘That’s where the enormous value of the other world accounts come in. They give us at least one chapter more.’ ‘One chapter more’ is an apt description of The Land of Mist itself, which revives our old friends Challenger, Roxton and Malone in the service of a new cause. But another chapter, and another, and another, is also what Conan Doyle spun out for the Strand.

Geraldine Cummins, the medium whose copyright dispute Conan Doyle was called in to arbitrate, gave the metaphor a different spin a few years later. In her formulation, ‘we are not merely short stories on the pages of earth; we are a serial, and each chapter closes with death.’ The sequel and the cycle provided Conan Doyle with two alternatives to the organic closure that novels share with biographies, and with lives. (Stashower’s, rather imaginatively, opens just after Conan Doyle’s death before doubling back to his childhood.) ‘You’re not a spirit, anyhow,’ Watson concludes when Holmes reappears after the duel at the Reichenbach Falls to star in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but a medium later invoked that title, publishing psychic communications under the heading of The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle.

At the height of Conan Doyle’s own spiritualist career, Holmes began to figure in cautionary tales about attempts to postpone death or reverse ageing. The quack remedies which the elderly professor in ‘The Creeping Man’ takes to rejuvenate himself end up driving him mad, and the last mystery to appear before Conan Doyle’s death, ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, is solved when Holmes deduces that the criminal has hired an impersonator to fool his creditors into believing that his recently deceased sister is still alive. Although the Reichenbach Falls promised to provide ‘a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him’, Conan Doyle’s solvency, like the brother’s in ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, turned out to depend on his power to raise the dead.

His own characters weren’t the only ones Conan Doyle resurrected. He turned down the executors who asked him to write an ending for the novel left unfinished at Robert Louis Stevenson’s death, but agreed to complete his friend Grant Allen’s Hilda Wade (in which a clairvoyant nurse outsmarts and outbikes her would-be murderer across two continents) when Allen’s fatal illness left the serial with several months to run in the Strand. The last episode was published under the title ‘The Dead Man who Spoke’. Eventually, the ghostwriting became more literal. Conan Doyle only toyed with a message from the spirit of Joseph Conrad asking for an ending to Suspense (left unfinished, as its title implies, at the author’s death), but was more flattered when Dickens posthumously invited him to solve The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The exchange was recorded in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research:

  I shall be honoured, Mr Dickens.

  Charles, if you please. We like friends to be friends.

The Holmes series has attracted even more continuations than Edwin Drood – among them Stashower’s own attempt, The Adventures of the Ectoplasmic Man (1985), a historical whodunnit that imagines Houdini joining forces with Holmes. By contrast, Teller of Tales is less successful at meshing the Holmesian strand of Conan Doyle’s career with its spiritualist subplot. Stashower compiles a lively catalogue of Conan Doyle’s non-literary undertakings, from two unsuccessful Parliamentary campaigns, to the passionate defence of the Boer War which helped earn him a knighthood, to a failed crusade (at the very moment when Holmes was called back from retirement to contribute to the war effort disguised as an Irish-American spy) against Roger Casement’s execution for treason. But when it comes to the detective stories themselves, Stashower looks less like the analyst Holmes than like the annalist Watson: engaging, enthusiastic, informative, but always just missing the point.

‘The principal difficulty in your case lay in there being too much evidence,’ Holmes concludes in ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty’. Teller of Tales adds rich new material to Conan Doyle’s autobiography (which downplayed the spiritualism), but subtracts too little from it. Not content to reproduce every waggish anecdote, Stashower throws in bonus punchlines of his own (‘if these words were not written by Conan Doyle, then at least one biographer will eat his deerstalker hat’) on top of enough trivia for any authorised biography. The detective who said that ‘there is nothing so important as trifles’ has always inspired a taste for detail (the Baker Street Journal features debates about whether Watson was educated at Abingdon or Winchester and whether Holmes seems to be an Oxford or a Cambridge man), but even the most fetishistic fan may not want to know the exact weight of a trout once caught by Conan Doyle’s second wife, or what cut of coat he married her in. Rather as Sexton Blake’s name never appears without the epithet ‘the world-famous detective’, Stashower seems to think that no quotation is complete without one last dollop of characterisation: ‘ “You’ve been up to summat,” he declared, in the manner of a true Yorkshireman.’ Readers who cringe easily should stick with Martin Booth’s dutiful The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle (1997). Stashower has a lot more imagination, Booth a few more facts. And while Stashower’s slapdash enthusiasm does more justice to the spiritualist episodes than Booth’s cradle-to-grave account, anyone curious about the making of the Holmes stories should skip both biographies in favour of the Conan Doyle chapter in Peter McDonald’s British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914 (1997).

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