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Initial thoughts/review of Conan Doyle –Writing, Profession, and Practice by Douglas Kerr

It is important that you note that this is a limited review based on the quarter or so of the book I have read up to the point of writing. It may seem unfair to judge a book based only on a percentage of its content but the comments I will be making will be confined to what I have read and are subject to change as I progress through the book.

So why not wait until you've read it all? Fair question but I'm not likely to pick it up again for a while for reasons that will be explained later and I feel that my initial thoughts should go out there for the benefit of anyone who is thinking of buying it.

So here goes…..

Douglas Kerr, who is Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong, has produced a very academic book that, I think, will be bordering on impenetrable for many (or maybe just me).

Well Alistair, I hear you say, it is published by the Oxford University Press didn't that give you a clue? Well of course it did. But there is academic and there is academic.

Some books are academic yet manage to educate you by using the simple expedient of accessible language and there are others where the approach is to use such phraseology as to be almost esoteric and that is pretty much the case here (at least in sizeable parts).

Kerr, in his introduction, remarks that many biographical works about ACD (and most other people now I think of it) are written in a narrative way. Kerr chooses to write his differently. He takes what he sees as the main themes of Conan Doyle’s life: Sport; Medicine; Science;  Law and Order;  Army and Empire; Spirit – and proceeds to give us, essentially, a volume containing a series of academic papers on each theme that, to varying extents, revolve around Conan Doyle. 

The problem is that each section tends to drift from Conan Doyle to the point where you can almost forget that he is being discussed at all. Kerr looks at the subjects in the context of Victorian life and culture in general rather more than he does in the context of Conan Doyle's life. The two are not the same although they do overlap. Time and again I would reach the stage where Conan Doyle was almost lost from view and on each occasion Kerr would link back to Conan Doyle just in time. It's almost as if he knows how far away from his subject he has got and goes back to, as it were, touch base.

As a result of this approach, the book simply doesn't flow and cannot be described as a page turner. You could easily put this book down for a few days, weeks or even months and just pick it up again. And this is exactly what I will be doing….

One decision made by Kerr needs to be questioned. Namely the list of abbreviations. Kerr lists abbreviations for twenty-three of Conan Doyle's works but this is a completely pointless exercise as the average person (or even academic, I suspect) is not going to be able to remember them all. This has the result that when you see them in the text you have to flick back to the list almost every time or read on in ignorance. He may have made his job as a writer easier by doing this but it does not make things easier for the reader and as a writer it is your job to do the work to make your readers’ lives easier not the other way round.

There are also issues of accuracy. On page 12 the editor of the Strand Magazine is referred to as Henry Greenhough-Smith when his first name is in fact Herbert. On page 52, Conan Doyle’s collection of medical related stories is referred to as Beneath the Red Lamp when it should, of course, be Round the Red Lamp.  Perhaps I'm being silly but I expected better of a book put out as an academic title.

The book blurb describes it as “a critical study of the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, and a cultural biography”. This may be so but it is more the latter than the former in my opinion. It is also described as being targeted at “students of literary and cultural history and Conan Doyle enthusiasts”. I would say definitely more the former than the latter.

Based on what I've read would I recommend it? No is the honest answer. It is expensive for what it is and while it offers a different approach from other works it does not really offer us, in relation to Conan Doyle, facts that we cannot find in many other works. The only truly unique thing about the book is Kerr’s take on said facts. If you had not read any biographical works about Conan Doyle and were looking for a book to begin with you would be better off with one of the more conventional narrative biographies rather than this work.


This book is a reference work not a book to read on the train. It is useful if you treat it as such but it is for the scholar who has to have everything not for the mainstream Conan Doyle enthusiast.




Written by Alistair Duncan
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the heads up. It sounds like a book I would have a tough time getting through.

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