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12:00 AM, Aug 30, 1999 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Comedians, beautiful women, and the writers of popular fiction all suffer from the same affliction: a yearning to be taken seriously. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born in 1859, wanted above all to be considered a serious writer, and it was no consolation that he had created the most enduring character of modern literature. Sherlock Holmes is the winning child whom everyone loves except his father. "I believe," Conan Doyle once sadly wrote, "that if I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one."

Serious writers -- the ones who actually occupied the commanding position Doyle envied -- recognized that Holmes was extraordinary, though their wonder was tinged with condescension toward his creator. In Ulysses, James Joyce transmogrified the detective's name into a loopy verb: "He had been meantime taking stock of the individual in front of him and Sherlockholmesing him up." George Bernard Shaw numbered Holmes among the three most famous men who ever lived (along with Jesus Christ and Houdini). T. S. Eliot remarked, "Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence" -- and as for Arthur Conan Doyle, "what has he to do with Holmes?"

Most of the detective's admirers agree. Near the author's Edinburgh birthplace stands a statue of Holmes -- and not Doyle. There have been more than twenty Holmes plays, well over a hundred Holmes movies, numerous television shows, a Broadway musical, and a ballet. John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles collaborated on a recording of Holmes's best stories. The detective's face has appeared on a series of British postage stamps, and illustrations of his cases decorate the London Underground's Baker Street station. At least fifty authors since Doyle's death in 1930 have published additional Holmes cases, as though Doyle himself were incidental to the whole business.

Daniel Stashower, Doyle's latest biographer, stops short of portraying his subject as "The Man Who Hated Sherlock Holmes." But he does make it clear that Doyle thought little of Holmes -- and accordingly, there is little of Holmes in Stashower's Teller of Tales. Just as Holmes has a life apart from Doyle, so Doyle lived a remarkable life quite apart from his most famous creation. "I have had a life which, for variety and romance, could, I think, hardly be exceeded," Doyle wrote, and this new biography proves the swagger justified.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born into a family of Irish descent and some distinction; his grandfather John Doyle had been the foremost political caricaturist of his time, and three of his uncles are mentioned in the Dictionary of National Biography: a historian, an artist, and the director of the National Gallery in Dublin. Doyle's father, however, was a wreck -- a surveyor whose alcoholism kept his family in poverty and who ended up in a madhouse. The boy's wealthy uncles paid for his education at Jesuit schools in England and Austria, where he excelled in sports.

He then went on to study medicine at Edinburgh University, where he came under the influence of Dr. Joseph Bell, the model for Holmes, a surgeon who astonished his students with uncanny displays of observation and deduction. But the craving for adventure and the need for money prompted Doyle to interrupt his medical studies and sign aboard an Arctic whaler as a twenty-year-old ship's surgeon.

His medical duties were not demanding, and, wanting to do what the real men did, he volunteered to help hunt for seals and whales. Once, off on his own, he fell into the frigid water. Desperately reaching up for the seal carcass he had been skinning, he pulled himself slowly back onto the ice; but as he was inching his way up, the seal was sliding down, and if it too fell into the water, he knew he would die. Doyle just made it to safety, and the brush with death, he was convinced, made a man of him.

After a seven-month voyage, he returned to Edinburgh and got his degree before enlisting for another stint as ship's doctor, this time aboard a steamer on the Liverpool-West Africa route. After three months -- and a bout with malaria, a crocodile hunt, a near miss with a shark, and a fire on the ship -- he returned to look for prospects closer to home.

His prominent London uncles offered their assistance; they knew the best Roman Catholic families, and the right introductions would be invaluable for a doctor just establishing his practice. But Doyle had abandoned the Catholic faith, and he would struggle for nine years to make a success of his medical career.