Saturday, 12 May 2012

Baskerville, by John O'Connell

Baskerville, by John O’Connell, Short Books 2012, first published as The Baskerville Legacy, 2011.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a sensation on its serial publication in the Strand magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, and book publication just as the serialisation concluded. It marked Holmes’s first appearance since he apparently fell over the Reichenbach Falls clutching Professor Moriarty at the climax to ‘The Final Problem’ in 1893, and a nation rejoiced, even if it was a prequel rather than a resurrection. But a mystery surrounds its creation. Credited solely to Arthur Conan Doyle, the elusive figure of Bertram Fletcher Robinson hangs over it.

John O’Connell has taken the uncertainties of the novel’s genesis and woven a factional account using the old conceit of a manuscript hidden away for a century and now published for the first time. Taking what little we know about the collaboration, he has added an elegant, if not particularly thrilling, recreation of their relationship, Robinson rather playing a resentful Watson to Conan Doyle’s high-handed Holmes, spiced up by Robinson’s demons, swigging laudanum and visiting a prostitute (O’Connell says in an afterword that the invention is fanciful and that Robinson was doubtless “solid” and “uncomplicated” in real life).

In the novel, they meet on board a ship returning from South Africa in July 1900, where Conan Doyle had volunteered his services as a surgeon at Bloemfontein and Robinson had been covering the conflict for the Daily Express, of which he was about to become Editor. The two strike up a friendship, and Conan Doyle suggests that they work together on a “real creeper”. These shipboard scenes are the most vivid in the book.

The pair holidayed together at Cromer in Norfolk in 1901, where folkloric accounts of Black Shuck became the germ of the hound (in the novel Robinson decides it should be a wolf, but Conan Doyle is not convinced). They then visited Dartmoor, Robinson’s home turf, an area with its own tradition of Wish or Wisht Hounds. In the book their relationship reaches a crisis at Princetown from which it never recovers, though in real life Robinson merely claimed that “One of the most interesting weeks that I ever spent was with Doyle on Dartmoor”, and, the two played golf together later.

If Robinson stretches credulity, Conan Doyle comes over as entirely plausible, a charming, sunny and genial what-you-see-is-what-you-get clubbable type of soul, but expecting to get his own way (his poor treatment of his children by his first wife Touie after his marriage to Jean gives a flavour of his hard streak). That is, he is plausible until they get to the moor, when the atmosphere, like the weather, gets darker, and Conan Doyle shows a surprising side to his character. The problem is of course that we are seeing him through Robinson’s eyes, and he is hardly a reliable narrator.

The intriguing twist is that Conan Doyle does not want Robinson for his plots but for his clout as a newspaper man able to promote Conan Doyle’s obsession, Spiritualism. It is ironic that in pursuit of The New Revelation he is willing to commit what he would see as a pious fraud, others as something less honourable, using the real-life medium Madame d’Esperance. They tell Robinson that he is psychic, but the alleged spirit communication it transpires is a hoax; yet in one of the feverish dreams that Robinson suffers he appears to witness the force-feeding of a suffragette, suggesting that he actually does have psychic abilities.

The novel has a playful side, and O’Connell is not afraid to slip in anachronisms. Sometimes they are acknowledged, such as Robinson’s fiancé’s backstory as a suffragette (a term not coined until1906), which O’Connell discusses in his afterword; and sometimes they are not, such as the line “science annihilates distance, someone one said”. They did, but not yet, it’s a line from Brideshead Revisited (1945) – perhaps it’s an indication of Robinson’s precognitive ability. Baskerville is a curious title because although Harry Baskerville, the Robinson family coachman, appears briefly, he is not the significant character the title promises. But, playfully, there is an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the main character in which is William of Baskerville, itself harking back to Conan Doyle. And what font have Short Books used? Yes, of course: Baskerville.

An obvious question is why such a successful author would want a collaborator. Robinson was not well known, and had a background in journalism, not fiction (though of course the two do possess similarities). Perhaps Conan Doyle’s inspiration was flagging and he needed Robinson’s stimulus to help with the story outline and some local colour, which he was then perfectly able to work up into a gripping narrative without assistance. There were certainly affinities between them, Andrew Lycett in his biography of Conan Doyle referring to Robinson as “a chip off the Conan Doyle block”. Their interest in sport would have been a strong element of their friendship, and both shared a love of adventure and detective stories, though Robinson’s creation Addington Peace is not quite at the Sherlock Holmes level in terms of familiarity.

We do not know why Robinson dropped out of the venture, and the extent of his contribution. Likewise, his initial expectations of what the partnership would entail are unclear. Perhaps he was not happy that it was to be another Holmes story. It could have been pressure of work, as indicated in O’Connell’s afterword. Herbert Greenhough Smith, editor of the Strand, may have been unhappy at the thought of having Robinson’s name on the story. Bearing in mind that Conan Doyle probably did write the whole book as published, Robinson was paid well, yet may have felt that he deserved more recognition than Conan Doyle paid in public.

Robinson died of typhoid in 1907, and O’Connell implies that his early death at the age of 36 was caused by his involvement in publicising an allegedly cursed Egyptian mummy lid acquired by the British Museum, which he had done in 1904. Conan Doyle himself thought that these were murky waters, having warned Robinson not to involve himself with the business; he considered that typhoid was the sort of method a curse might employ. At least there is nothing here about the preposterous theory that Conan Doyle poisoned Robinson in order to shut him up trying to take credit for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

This isn’t the first time that Conan Doyle has appeared as a character in a novel, and comparisons are inevitably drawn with Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George. That work’s solid achievement rather shows up the slightness of Baskerville, but O’Connell gives us an entertaining read, and brings Bertram Fletcher Robinson out from Doyle’s very broad shadow, even if it probably distorts what little we know about him in the process. Anyway, I was pleased to see the Plume of Feathers at Princetown mentioned, albeit briefly, as a relative of mine runs it.