Book review. Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Devon

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Author(s): Brayshay. Mark; Year published: 2010; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 436–437
Topic(s): fiction; Location(s): Dartmoor

Brian W. Pugh, Paul R. Spiring and Sadru Bhanji, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Devon. A Complete Tour Guide & Companion (MX Publishing Ltd., London, 2010), xvi + 255 pages. Softback. ISBN 9781904312864. £12. 99.

As well as their obvious enthusiasm for Conan Doyle and his work, two of the authors (Paul Spiring and Sadru Bhanji) of this fascinating book are DA members. Their detailed knowledge of the county has clearly proved invaluable. Brian Pugh, the other author, is curator of the Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment and, last year, he published an authoritative life of this much-loved author. The meticulousness of their exploration of the connections between Devon and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is perhaps worthy of his most famous creation: Sherlock Holmes. Between 1882 and 1923, Conan Doyle was in the county on ten occasions and the authors examine in detail the links between these visits and Conan Doyle’s knowledge of Devon and its landscapes, and the genesis of the most popular of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The roles played by three key men in Conan Doyle’s life and his literary career are elucidated. First, Dr George Turnavine Budd was a physician with whom Conan Doyle went briefly into partnership as a junior in a medical practice in Durnford Street, East Stonehouse in Plymouth. Budd is thus credited with bringing the young doctor to Devon in 1882. The partnership ended within weeks but Conan Doyle’s obvious fascination with Devon locations and their potential as settings for his writings had already begun. As early as 1882, for example, he published an article in the British Journal of Photography which drew mainly on material he acquired during an excursion from Plymouth to Tavistock, via Roborough. The career of Sherlock Holmes was launched in Conan Doyle’s story, A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. The second key figure in Conan Doyle’s literary career and in his connections with Devon was Sir George Newnes who, amongst many other achievements, launched The Strand magazine in 1891. In July that year, Newnes published Conan Doyle’s Holmes adventure, Scandal in Bohemia, which proved highly popular and prompted a commission for a further 11 Holmes stories for The Strand. Newnes had a home in Lynton and played an important role in the development of the resort. He also owned property in Torquay. Conan Doyle was a guest of Sir George in Lynton in 1902. The third key figure, who played a critical part in shaping the plot of the Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was Bertram Fletcher Robinson. The Robinson family home, from 1882, was in Ipplepen. Conan Doyle renewed his friendship with Robinson during the lengthy return sea journey which by chance they were both taking from Cape Town in 1900. During the voyage it seems that the two men discussed an idea for a story that ultimately became The Hound of the Baskervilles. When they toured Dartmoor together in 1901, Robinson’s coachman who drove for them was Henry Baskerville! They stayed at the Duchy Hotel in Princetown. All these intriguing pieces of evidence are woven into a compelling narrative which occupies the first half of this well-illustrated book.

The second half comprises a tour of all the places in Devon where there is a Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes connection. The full itinerary runs to over 155 miles and includes some 56 places of interest in 30 different locations. There is obviously some overlap between the two halves of the volume but the advantage is that the guide can be used as a stand-alone work of reference to the places in Devon that have some link to Conan Doyle, his writings, his associates, and his other interests and activities. Though best-known as the author of detective fiction, Conan Doyle was so much more! The book provides a glimpse of his medical background and his interests in politics, famous legal miscarriages, golf and cricket, and spiritualism. He opposed the suffragettes, but espoused the cause of the Congo Reform Association that sought to publicise the atrocities committed by King Leopold II of Belgium against the Congolese people. Indeed, he lectured in Plymouth’s Guildhall on behalf of the Association in 1909. A short review cannot do full justice to this book. It is a volume that is well worth having to hand when travelling around Devon; you will never be far from a place with a Conan Doyle connection! The authors are to be congratulated for bringing so much intriguing and enlightening information together in one book.

Mark Brayshay
(First published in Transactions 2010)