This is in some ways a strange book (click here for the Amazon page). Sandford explains at the beginning of the book that this is not a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nor is it a minute reexamination of the Edalji and Slater cases – the two criminal cases which Doyle regarded as miscarriages of justice and worked to right wrongs.
However, the book does go into some details of ACD’s life, and also provides a summary of both cases as it concentrates on the almost obsessive side of the man’s life which wished to see “fair play” in all things.
An accomplished cricketer – ACD was particularly proud of having taken the wicket of the famous W.G.Grace (another medical doctor) – his sense of justice led him into a number of high-profile conflicts with the establishment.
Sandford does not intend the book to be a hagiography. The Edalji case is presented with much more sympathy for Captain Anson (the Chief Constable of Staffordshire) and the police than, say, Julian Barnes’ Arthur And George. ACD’s defence of George Edalji, largely based on his training as an ophthalmologist, is largely discounted, and though Doyle’s contribution to Edalji’s defence and the creation of the Criminal Appeal Court are not ignored, neither are they glorified. However, the book clearly points out the failings in basic forensic procedure by the Staffordshire police which were also noted and publicised by Doyle.
In the Slater case, where an elderly woman was found viciously battered to death, and a German Jew was arrested and condemned for the crime, largely, it would seem, on the basis of his having been (a) an alien and (b) a pimp, rather than on the basis of forensic evidence, ACD’s influence (some time after the event) seems to have been rather less.
Other sides to Doyle
The conflict between the seemingly rational and unemotional Sherlock Holmes and his emotionally impulsive creator lies at the heart of the book, though Sandford provides extracts from the Canon, especially in the later works, which show a deeper, more spiritual, side to Holmes than the bloodhound depicted in A Study in Scarlet or the earlier adventures.
Two major conflicts appear – firstly, ACD’s dalliance with Jean Leckie during the fatal illness of his first wife – a dalliance, if not an outright affaire, which caused him a severe reprimand from his brother-in-law, E.W.Horning (of “Raffles” fame). For all his ideals of chivalry, little appears to have bothered Doyle on the surface, though Sandford uses the relationships in “Thor Bridge” to point to a possible underlying guilt on ACD’s part regarding the Leckie-Doyle relationship during Louisa’s illness.
Secondly, Doyle’s increasing obsession with spiritualism, which earned him considerable ridicule from critics, including one-time friends, such as Houdini, who mocked his credulity, and saw it as the sign of a deteriorating mind.
If Sandford’s accounts of ACD’s psychic experiences are to be seen as accurate, it would appear that the rationalist in Doyle was completely submerged when it came to evaluating the evidence for any psychical phenomena, and he was willing to regard even the most loose controls on mediums as being scientific. In a similar mood, he seemed to regard any scepticism regarding an individual spiritualist medium as being hostility to spiritualism in general, leading to his eventual resignation from the Society for Psychical Research.
More worryingly, perhaps, was his preoccupation with psychics as crime-solvers, where clues to a mystery purportedly came from beyond the grave. Even while admitting the fallibility of this method, he continued to promote it to the police and the authorities, who by this time seemed to have come to regard him as a crank.
Overall, the picture that Sandford paints is one of an all too human figure: one whose ideals could be summed up in the words on his tombstone (“Steel True, Blade Straight”) which might have been used to describe a character in one of his beloved historical fictions, but who fell short of the mark in some ways, where his passion for what he saw as the truth blinded him to more obvious facts.
Whether this view is one which corresponds closely to the reality of this paradoxically simple and yet complex man, we may never truly know, but The Man who Would be Sherlock adds a new dimension to our understanding of the creator of Sherlock Holmes.