It's about time that a biographer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made a serious attempt at understanding Doyle's spiritualist conversion from skeptic to ardent crusader. Daniel Stashower, who received the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective and Crime Fiction Writing, does just this though he did not have access to the Conan Doyle papers, which have been sealed in litigation for decades. Nonetheless, he consulted an impressive list of primary and secondary sources on both sides of the Atlantic. That research and a seamless narrative raise Teller of Tales well above many biographies that are no more than repetitions of well-known facts.
Stashower covers many important facets of Conan Doyle's life. He argues, however, that essential to understanding Conan Doyle is his relationship with Jean Leckie (his second wife) during first wife Louisa's illness. Having met and fallen in love with Jean not long after Louisa's contraction of tuberculosis, Conan Doyle remained committed to shielding Louisa from pain. During the dozen or more years of the relationship, there is no evidence that Louisa knew of the relationship. Conan Doyle was a man in turmoil, whose activity during this period was as much an escape from his personal troubles as a reflection of his natural energy. Stashower's greatest strength is tracing Conan Doyle's commitment to spiritualism, which is often thought to have originated during the First World War after the deaths of his son, brother, and nephews. Stashower clearly shows Conan Doyle had an interest in paranormal and psychic phenomenon early on. In 1881 (when he was 21), Conan Doyle attended spiritualism lectures, and by the mid-1880s was attending mesmerism and other mediumistic displays. By 1887 he publicly declared his conviction: After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa. Stashower succeeds with flying colors in his exploration of the origins of the crusade that occupied the author's later life.
He is less successful, however, when it comes to identifying his sources. There are no footnotes to direct the reader to a specific source in the bibliography.
Conan Doyle was a fascinating, complex, and multifaceted man. For those unfamiliar with him, Teller of Tales is an excellent place to discover that Conan Doyle was much more than the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Bruce Southworth is a reviewer in St. Paul, Minnesota.