An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw, and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1897-1907) By Alistair Duncan Reviewed by Amy Thomas
The one word I would use to describe An Entirely New Country is surprising. When I opened my pdf to begin the latest non-fictional effort by notable Sherlockian Alistair Duncan, I expected something worthwhile, factual, and historically significant. If I’m honest, I also suspected it might be somewhat dull and colorless, like a textbook one feels one ought to read but can’t quite get excited over. I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong. Duncan’s prose is concise and colorful, and he manages to illuminate little-known history in an engaging way.
The book’s structure is straightforward. It explores the years of the Conan Doyle family’s residence at their Hindhead home, Undershaw, year-by-year, paying particular attention to Conan Doyle’s public image and activities.
The meat on the bones is the portrait Duncan paints of a complex man, one who built a home for the sake of his wife’s health, only to begin an ongoing relationship with another woman several years before his wife’s death. Duncan is even-handed, and readers are given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.
One of the book’s most valuable sections is its detailed explanation of Conan Doyle’s activities during the Boer War, in which he both served as a medical officer and as a largely unbiased voice in defense of his own army and the Boers as well. Most American readers, at least, are unlikely to be unaware of this aspect of the author’s life, making An Entirely New Country a valuable resource.
Much to Conan Doyle’s likely annoyance, readers would probably have no idea who he was if not for Sherlock Holmes, and the Undershaw years were extremely significant to the character. Duncan explores the author’s decision during this decade to authorize a play based on Sherlock Holmes, write The Hound of the Baskervilles, and finally resurrect the detective in earnest; however, these events are presented in a balanced way that does not dwarf the other happenings in Conan Doyle’s life during the same period.
Interestingly, a vast number of the sources Duncan cites are newspapers. This evidence of the press’s nearly day-by-day interest in Conan Doyle’s life and activities indicates that celebrity at the turn of the century was not as different from the celebrity culture today as readers might imagine.
Throughout the book, Undershaw is a backdrop, the silent observer of famous guests, a dying wife, and a flawed author who enjoyed vast success. Duncan penned the work partly to draw attention to the fight to save Undershaw, which is in danger of development that would irrevocably eradicate its original design. An Entirely New Country provides ample evidence of the fact that Undershaw should be protected, based on its significance in the life of Conan Doyle while he served his nation and penned some of his most famous works.
Color me surprised. An Entirely New Country is surely historical and factual and erudite, but it is far from uninteresting. As I reached its midpoint, I found myself drawn into Duncan’s smooth prose and captivated by the life and times of an unusual man. Absolutely worth reading.
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This book was provided for review by MX Publishing.