“When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in everything.”
Who said that before me?
G.K.Chesterton, I think.
It happened to Conan Doyle (1859-1930). His father was of Irish descent and his mother, Mary Foley, was Irish. They were Catholics; Conan Doyle’s full name was Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle – the Ignatius is the giveaway; Catholics force the most awful middle names on their kids.
The old man drank. They lived in a run-down tenement in Edinburgh, but a well-off Doyle uncle, a cartoonist who drew the famous cover for Punch (they used it every week until the 1950s) paid for the kid to go to a Jesuit prep school and Stonyhurst College, the famous Jesuit school.
He then went to another Jesuit school in Austria for a year and then to medical school at Edinburgh University.
He gave up religion then, but far from believing in nothing he started believing in fairies.
That is an amazing belief for the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, the greatest brain in sleuthdom, to have.
Another odd belief of Conan Doyle’s was that Sherlock was not literature and the high-class prose he was after.
It is well known that when he killed Sherlock readers started wearing black mourning armbands. Sherlock had to return. (The only other black armband outbreak that I remember was when The Field magazine stopped being a weekly. Alec Douglas Home wore the mourning band in Parliament.)
You and I of course know that Dr Watson didn’t actually write the 56 Sherlock stories that appeared in The Strand magazine. But there were people out there when Sherlock was first appearing who said naturally they read the Sherlock Holmes adventures but they’d never heard of Conan Doyle.
It is something of a triumph for a writer to have his characters become more famous than himself, but it is usually young readers who pay no attention to the author. What girl, for example, knew the name of the woman who invented Nancy Drew? And what boy bothered about the author of The Hardy Boys? I also had no idea that someone other than Robinson Crusoe wrote about Friday and the cannibal island.
To return to the long-suffering Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Everyone knew what Sherlock Homes looked like but Sir Arthur could toddle down to the greengrocers and be undisturbed.
There is a dramatic statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh opposite the birthplace of Conan Doyle. The birthplace was torn down in 1970; no one complained.
There is a statue of Sir Arthur in Crowborough, East Sussex. It is not as big as Sherlock’s statue. Also most people wouldn’t know who the statue was supposed to be. It doesn’t look like the photograph of Doyle: a man with a big moustache and even bigger face. “The Gentle Giant,” the French called him.
These thoughts about Sir Arthur came upon me when I discovered a novel of his that was news to me. This was The Tragedy Of The Korosko. The Korosko is a Nile steamer taking a group on a sightseeing cruise up the river. They are a highly civilized bunch, but when they are kidnapped by a band of “Dervish camel-men” their beliefs are turned upside down; their lives are also threatened.
Written in 1898 it is a magic mixture of humour and melodrama. It is published by Hesperus, a marvellous collector of forgotten tales by famous authors. For example, Charlotte Bronte’s The Green Dwarf; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter; Pushkin’s Dubrovsky; Flaubert’s Memoirs of a Madman, Pope’s Scriblerus; Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat etc.
Non-Sherlock Conan Doyle has had its fans. Winston Churchill preferred them. They do have more humour. For example The Lost World (1912) which inspired Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park starts describing a man as “a fluffy, feathery, untidy cockatoo of a man”. This is a far cry from the cosy world of Dr Watson suddenly being upset by Holmes saying, “Come, Watson, the game’s afoot.”
There are any number of terror stories – The Ring of Troth; The Lord of Chateau Noir; The Case of Lady Sannox; The Brown Hand; The Nightmare Room – which critics claim are much better than the Holmes stories. I doubt it.
Meanwhile back at the ranch I wonder if the statue of Boomer Daniels will be bigger than mine. Boomer Daniels – who he? He’s the mild-mannered detective in my Christmas novel Murder In A Cold Climate.