Man of mystery

<strong>Conan Doyle: the Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes</strong>

Andrew Lycett <em>Weidenfeld &

According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's university mentor, Professor Joseph Bell, who later became the model for Sherlock Holmes, the basis of "all successful medical diagnosis" is "the precise and intelligent recognition and appreciation of minor differences". The same might be said of successful biography, and it is the precise and intelligent appreciation of the differences by which Conan Doyle was composed that makes Andrew Lycett's diagnosis of his subject so thoroughly satisfying.

Born in Scotland of Irish parents, Conan Doyle abandoned his family's Roman Catholicism and became the model of colonial Englishness. With a bookish, practical mother and an insane, alcoholic father, who for years was incarcerated in an institution with the terrifying name of "Sunnyside", Arthur was caught between the fascinations of reason and unreason. His letters to "Mam", in which he describes the mother-son relationship they shared as the perfect love affair, suggest that even by Victorian standards this was a strange devotion. Trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, city of the Enlightenment, Conan Doyle balanced an interest in scientific certainties with a faith in the supernatural, and divided his time between the operating table and the ouija board. When he set up his own practice in Southsea, he spent more time polishing the brass plate on his front door than diagnosing symptoms. It was while he was still in his twenties that Conan Doyle created the "most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen", as Watson described Sherlock Holmes, whose melancholy, arrogance, and "passion for definite and exact knowledge" summed up the late 19th century. He sold his first Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet", for £25.

As if being Conan Doyle were not complex enough, he was immediately identified with his brilliant creation, receiving sackfuls of mail in which, as a "consulting detective", he was presented by his readers with problems to solve. As to the solution of his own problem: "I have made up my mind to kill Sherlock Holmes," he wrote. "He is becoming such a burden to me that it makes my life unbearable." Soon after his detective disappeared over the Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle saw that he was not going to make it as the serious man of letters he aspired to be, and the beak-nosed misanthrope was wearily resurrected, his apparent death having been no more than a visual trick.

No doubt it is because the skills of the lean and elusive Holmes were admired more than those of the portly, bluff Conan Doyle that he became so determined a public figure. As if by way of distinguishing himself from - or competing with - his monster, Conan Doyle took upon himself causes, be it the Congo, the extension of British Summer Time, or the reality of the Cottingley fairies, but occasionally his causes only confused the issue, such as the time he defended George Edalji, the son of an Indian country vicar who was accused of maiming animals. Using Holmesian methods to reveal the police as the purblind plods they really were, Conan Doyle showed how Edalji was too short-sighted to have performed, in the semi-darkness of night, the careful mutations of which he was accused.

While his first wife, Louise, was dying of consumption, he secretly began courting his next wife, Jean. The courtship lasted the nine years it took Louise to die, after which Conan Doyle raised a second family and more or less discarded the children from his first. "My dear, I am sure Daddy was born to be a Public Man and a husband, but not to be a Father," his eldest daughter Mary wrote to her brother, Kingsley.

A devoted son and a lousy father, a team player and an individualist, a walrus in a tweed suit with a brilliant literary gift; never has a figure seemed so simultaneously solid and slippery. Just who on earth was Arthur Conan Doyle? Deduction and analysis are Andrew Lycett's tools in his search for clues, and despite having the most ghastly battle with the Conan Doyle estate (described in a gripping Afterword), he has managed to present a more thorough and complete picture of the man than any biographer before him. We know at any point how much money Conan Doyle had in the bank, what book he was reading, with whom he was lunching that day, and how he satisfied or unsatisfied he was with his latest achievement. Using previously unseen archives, Lycett gives us Conan Doyle as a late Victorian and definitive Edwardian, battling with the uncertainties of his own age, weary of the uncertainties of the next one ("All the outlines blurred and wavy,/All the colours turned to gravy," he said of the post-impressionists), finding that nothing in life is as elementary as he, or Holmes, would like it to be.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq