Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a complex man. Of course, he will always be best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, of whom he famously said, “He keeps me from better things.” Doyle considered works such as Sir Nigel and The White Company to be much better and far more significant, though posterity does not share that view.
No Better Place: Arthur Conan Doyle, Windlesham and Communication With the Other Side (1907-1930) is the final entry in Alistair Duncan’s trilogy looking at the author. The initial entry in the series was The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894), which was followed by An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1897-1907). In case you’re wondering, there’s a very brief section at the beginning of the second book, explaining the missing years. I’ll just say that Doyle and family were “homeless.”
No Better Place begins with Doyle newly married to Jean Leckie, who had patiently waited around for Doyle’s wife Louise to die of tuberculosis. The couple is about to move from Undershaw to their new home, Windlesham for a fresh start.
There was far more to Doyle than just his ability to write stories (a talent he developed because nobody wanted his medical services when he first hung out a shingle as a doctor in Southsea). Doyle fought passionately for the causes he believed in, such as justice for the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned George Edalji and Oscar Slater. He advocated body armor for British soldiers in World War One. He decried the Belgian atrocities in the Congo and vigorously defended British actions in the Boer War (for which he received his knighthood, though I believe that writing The Hound of the Baskervilles didn’t hurt). He argued for a Channel Tunnel and so on. My rambling point here being that there was much more to Conan Doyle than just being ‘the guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes.’
The book is extensively footnoted (over 400 of them) and draws heavily on three texts: Out of the Shadows by Georgina Doyle; Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, and A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Brian Pugh. I’m only familiar with the second, but it is an excellent reference that contains many letters written by Doyle.
I think that the strength of Duncan’s book is that instead of looking at Doyle’s entire life, it is focused on a specific period. This allows the author to bring up things less likely to be included in other biographies. For example, it mentions George Newnes’ passing and Arthur Twidle’s illustrations for The Strand. In not attempting to be comprehensive, it instead is a more directed thorough. Many are not delved into, but it gives a fuller look at what occupied Doyle’s time and attention at the time.
This phase of Doyle’s life involved a heavy dose of Harry Houdini (a famous friendship that became quite strained) and spiritualism (far and away Doyle’s strongest interest for the last part of his life). Doyle wrote almost one-third of his Holmes tales while at Windlesham, but the great detective plays a much less significant role than in the first two books.
Personally, I disapprove of Doyle and Leckie (which puts me on the side of his author brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung) and I have no use for his belief in spiritualism, which really is the main topic in this volume. But having said that, I found this to be an interesting read. Because Doyle was a man of such wide-ranging interests and activities, each year examined is full of information. If Doyle wasn’t putting on a play, he was being asked to referee a world championship-boxing match. If he wasn’t touring Australia to promote spiritualism, he was trying to keep Irish traitor Sir Roger Casement from the gallows. His involvement with The Cottingley Fairies hoax and Oscar Slater’s case occurred during this period. Motor racing tours competed with billiard championships for his time. The man didn’t just sit at his desk and write.
In reading No Better Place, one is impressed at just how active Arthur Conan Doyle was. He was constantly “doing something” or involved in some activity or other. Dunan’s book really conveys this sense of busyness. I’ve got a quite a few books about Doyle himself and I learned quite a bit from this one, which makes it a good addition to your library.