29th January, No Comments
By John Watson
Alistair Duncan kindly sent me an advance copy of his third Holmesian book (or maybe this is really his first Doylean book) entitled “The Norwood Author” which covers the four years when my literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, lived in South Norwood, a suburb of London.
Alistair’s first book “Eliminate the Impossible” has been described as “a frank, fascinating and sometimes controversial review” of the Canon on page and screen. This was followed with one of the most popular books on Holmes “Close To Holmes” which reviews the places across London featured in the Sherlock Holmes stories and dear to Arthur Conan Doyle too. Anyone visiting London with a fascination for Holmes will find this book a valuable guide to the metropolis.
He has written on the flyleaf of the copy of his new book that he sent me an appropriate quotation from “The Empty House” to the effect that it “could fill that gap on the second shelf”. This quotation is appropriate for several reasons. Firstly, the story that immediately follows “The Empty House” in “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” is “The Norwood Builder”.
Secondly, it was whilst Conan Doyle was living in South Norwood that the story of Holmes apparent demise came to the knowledge of the public in “The Final Problem” which is included in “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes“. Holmes returned in “The Empty House” to dramatic effect shortly after quoting those words above and causing me to faint with the shock!
Finally, the quotation is apposite to the book itself because it does fill a gap in our knowledge of the life of Conan Doyle. As Alistair points out, Arthur’s autobiography “Memories and Adventures” is often at odds with what we know from his letters (as can be seen in “Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters” and from other biographers (including Russell Miller and Andrew Lycett).
Taking each year in turn, Alistair chronicles Arthur’s activities, and paints a clear picture of the environs nicely supported by contemporary pictures. He brings Arthur’s life “to life”.
We read about Arthur’s membership of the Norwood Cricket Club and the turbulent proceedings of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society as he begins to develop his interest in psychic research.
During these years, Arthur and Louise’s first son was born, Arthur’s father died and Louise was diagnosed with tuberculosis. However it was a busy and successful time from a literary point of view. A third of Holmes’ cases were published around this time culminating in the sadness of “The Final Problem”. Some of Arthur’s most interesting work was also published, including “The Stark Munro Letters” and “The Refugees“.
At the end of the book, Alistair points out some interesting “coincidences” in South Norwood. There is a Doyle Road, a Baskerville Court and a Priory School!
Finally we learn about Alistair’s own contribution to the literary heritage of South Norwood – a Conan Doyle display in the William Stanley public house. The next time I’m down that way I will call in for a half in memory of Arthur. Norwood, Upper Norwood in fact, has personal memories too of my first wife, Mary, as I recounted in “The Sign of Four“.