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Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters    by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower & Charles Foley order for
Arthur Conan Doyle
by Jon Lellenberg
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of Sherlock Holmes, 'the world's most famous man who never was,' has been the subject of numerous biographical studies throughout the years. Now, a massive and important collection of Conan Doyle's personal correspondence is available in a single volume.

As a life in letters, the illuminating letters have been compiled, edited, and commented upon by three members of the Baker Street Irregulars, a club of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts founded in 1934: Charles Foley (the great-nephew of Conan Doyle and great-grandson of Mary Foley Doyle, the famous author's mother), Jon Ellenberg (the editor of The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and Daniel Stashower (The Edgar-Award winning author of Tellers of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle).

In focusing on the reasons why such a book as Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters is even possible, we need to understand the simple fact that Conan Doyle lived in an era quite different from our own when the artful passion for letter-writing was still a commonly pursued commitment for many people. Nevertheless, what is most uncommon about Conan Doyle's correspondence is the remarkable volume and quality of it; in fact, 'few writers have left as full a record of their lives and literary works' through their personal correspondence. He wrote many hundreds of letters to professional associates and personal acquaintances, and many of those have been previously published and studied, but he wrote most of his letters to his mother, and those are 'far more personal and introspective in nature, revealing a side of the man not previously known.'

From the time he went away to boarding school at the age of eight in 1867 until his mother's death in 1920 - more than fifty years later - Conan Doyle's beloved mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was his principal correspondent and confidant. Nearly a thousand of the letters between son and mother have survived, and these very special communications touch 'on everything going on in his life' and give readers a unique insight into the mind of a complex, multi-talented man.

'Gracefully written and consistently revealing,' the letters (to and from his mother as well as some other letters to and from other people) have been carefully selected and organized into Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, and they 'illuminate every phase of his life, tracing his development from a schoolboy through his years as a fledgling story writer, then to the years of his immense success' as the man who is known now principally as the creator of the sleuth of 221B Baker Street.

For readers wanting a singular autobiography of Arthur Conan Doyle - physician, sportsman, crusader for criminal and social justice, war correspondent, military historian, spokesman and crusader for a new religion, and immensely successful author - this collection of letters (with its excellent editorial commentary providing contexts and continuity) presents a 'warts and all portrait,' an important portrayal of a turn-of-the-century 'Renaissance man' who has too frequently been 'overshadowed by his famous character.' Exhaustive and illuminating, this fascinating collection of previously unpublished letters is an absolutely essential treasure trove for scholars and serious fans of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.

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