Elementary, My Dear Doyle

Edward O Hare's Booknotes, April 2008

It is generally assumed that a writer's most famous character must be some fanciful version of themselves. In the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the reverse was true, as Andrew Lycett's recent biography has uncovered.


Unlike his icy sleuth Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was a hugely enthusiastic individual who threw his support behind athletics, spiritualism, righting miscarriages of justice and helping Roger Casement to improve conditions in the Congo. Born into an Irish family in Edinburgh in 1859, he suffered the attentions of a zealous mother and mad artist father, who frequently drank furniture polish and walked on all fours. After unsuccessful spells at sea and as a doctor, Doyle dreamed up the fictional hero that brought him his fortune.

Lycett's biography illuminates the strange relationship Doyle had with his invention. Doyle eventually came to hate his errant “Calculating Machine”, and sent Holmes and his  mortal enemy Professor Moriarty plummeting into oblivion from the heights of the Reichenbach Falls after their duel in The Final Problem.

Lycett also makes the intriguing suggestion that, when he was looking for a model for Holmes's brilliant persona, Doyle had a fruitful meeting with another gifted eccentric, Oscar Wilde. 

Laughter in the Dark
It has all the makings of a classic black comedy. The last unpublished work of a European master, lost only to be found and then condemned to destruction. But when you learn that the master in question is Vladimir Nabokov things predictably get complex. It is 31 years since the great Russian-born prose stylist, and author of the notorious Lolita, laid aside his trademark butterfly net, but now that The Original of Laura has turned up stashed in Swiss Bank Vault the literary world has been left in ructions. It falls to Nabokov's son Dmitri to decide if he can follow his father's wishes and burn it. It has emerged that Dmitri was not being entirely truthful when he claimed to be unaware of the fabled manuscripts location. Numerous academics and scholars say he allowed them to read it, and, while each states that Laura is undeniably a work of Nabokov's, none can agree on the specific details of the plot. Nabokov, who published one dark masterpiece after another, including, Pnin, Bend Sinister, Ada or Ador, Laughter in the Dark and Pale Fire, cherished the silliness of language and his books are rife with puns and word games. Booknotes suspects that Nabokov may have planned for the last game to be played out beyond the page.

Of that bright and sensible generation of young writers who came to prominence in the early 90's Will Self seemed determined to be the odd man out. More interested in the numberless symptoms of psychosis that infest society, he bypassed normality and developed a hilariously demented fictional domain. The Butt is Self's latest modern nightmare. Tom Brodzinski takes his family on holiday to an island continent. There he takes the last step towards becoming a ‘good person' by quitting cigarettes. But when his discarded butt sets fire to the head of a maniacal local Tom is forced to make an expedition into the desert wastes at the heart of the island, alongside a mysterious fellow criminal. Self's previous books have been accused of being all ideas and no plot. Early rumours suggest that The Butt is the novel that will move Self out of his perpetual position in the ‘cult' bracket.