Tag Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle: War Propagandist

Highly patriotic Arthur Conan Doyle volunteered as a physician in the Boer War.

Highly patriotic Arthur Conan Doyle volunteered as a physician in the Boer War.

By C. Michael Forsyth

Like most Americans, I learned nothing about the Boer War in high school. Knowing only that it was between Great Britain and the Afrikaners, and not being a fan of apartheid, I assumed the English were the “good guys.” But, the war was fraught with moral ambiguity – as was Conan Doyle’s role in it, as I learned while researching my novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House.


The war was declared in October 1899, when the Boers – descendants of the Dutch, German and Huguenot who’d settled in the Cape of South Africa – rose up against the British Empire. Britain had established a major military presence in the region, ostensibly to protect the rights of British settlers. But the Boers contended that the English were only concerned with getting their hands on the largest gold field in the world, discovered a few years earlier.

The Boers -- now known as Afrikaners -- were dismissed as rabble farmers when they took on the British empire.

The Boers — now known as Afrikaners — were dismissed as rabble farmers when they took on the British empire.

A superpatriot, Conan Doyle promptly volunteered for the army, telling his mother he was “honor bound” to do so, since as a public figure, he could be a role model to younger men. Due to his age (40), he was placed on a waiting list. Undaunted, Conan Doyle joined as a medic, although the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had hung up his stethoscope many years earlier.

England's 5th Lancers at the Battle of Elandslaagte.

England’s 5th Lancers at the Battle of Elandslaagte.

Conan Doyle’s doctoring skills were put to the test soon after his arrival with the troops. His unit, stationed at Bloemfontein, was overwhelmed by a virulent epidemic of typhoid (then known as enteric fever). The horrific conditions in the hospital ward have been likened to a slaughterhouse. But the author rose to occasion magnificently, rolling up his sleeves and working tirelessly and without complaint, never leaving his post, according to an account in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Russell Miller.

“I never saw a man throw himself into duty so thoroughly, heart and soul,” wrote Mortimer Memes, a war artist who visited the Longman Hospital and sketched the author tending to stricken soldiers.

But there is a dark side to this tale of wartime heroism.

The Boers turned out to be hardier than the British government expected.

The Boers turned out to be hardier than the British government expected.


When the mighty British Empire took up arms against the Boers – dismissed as ignorant farmers with rifles – the government assumed the conflict would be over in a matter of weeks. Newspapers nicknamed it “The Tea Time War.” But it turned out to be anything but tea with the queen. The Boers were surprisingly adept with firearms and employed guerilla tactics that left British military leaders – used to infantrymen marching at them shoulder to shoulder—flummoxed. The Boer War ended up being the longest, costliest and bloodiest conflict Britain fought in the 19th century, with 22,000 English troops dead, mostly from disease. As the casualties mounted and reports of wartime atrocities by the British army surfaced, support from the public — reared on the assumption of the Empire’s invincibility — waned. It was in some ways this was Britain’s Vietnam.

Many Boer children died in British concentration camps.

Many Boer children died in British concentration camps.


The British army herded nearly 120,000 civilians into concentration camps.

The British army herded nearly 120,000 civilians into concentration camps.

To stamp out the Boers’ guerilla force, the British commander Lord Kitchener resorted to scorched earth tactics, torching crops and farms, and poisoning wells. More than 30,000 farmhouses and 40 small towns were destroyed, according to Miller’s book. Nearly 120,000 civilians were herded into what the government called “concentration camps,” introducing that now-infamous term to warfare. At least 25,000 civilians, including many children, died in the camps due to the appalling conditions, often succumbing to disease.

None of this dampened Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm for the war; he remained a vocal champion. Returning from his five month tour of duty, he penned The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a spirted defense of the Empire’s war effort. He emphatically disputed charges that British soldiers had committed rape and insisted (wrongly) that they had never used dum-dum bullets (expanding bullets that created horrific wounds). Those civilians were kept in refuge centers where the conditions were not to blame for any deaths, he adamantly maintained.

England's treatment of civilians in the Boer war was condemned abroad, as this French cartoon shows.

England’s treatment of civilians in the Boer war was condemned abroad, as this French cartoon shows.


“I do not think that any unprejudiced man can read the facts without acknowledging that the British government had done its best to avoid war and the British army to wage it with humanity,” Conan Doyle wrote.

About 300,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold in Britain and it was translated to foreign languages and read by people around the world. It is credited with shifting the tide of public opinion at home and abroad.

While there were rare opportunities for peaceful tea breaks, the "Tea Time War" was far from a cakewalk.

While there were rare opportunities for peaceful tea breaks, the “Tea Time War” was far from a cakewalk.


Conan Doyle was rewarded for his role as war propagandist, after the war ended with a British victory in May 1902. That October 24, he was knighted by the recently crowned King Edward VII.

The Boer War chapter of Conan Doyle’s life highlights his courage and compassion. It also illustrates his extraordinary capacity for ignoring reality once fixed upon a belief. Years later, this quality would be on spectacular display when he championed the belief in the existence of fairies.

Copyright C. Michael Forsyth

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's greatest magician probe a paranormal  mystery in new thriller.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world’s greatest magician probe a paranormal mystery in new thriller.

Houdini the Pilot

Houdini in his French biplane.

Houdini in his French biplane.

When one hears Houdini referred to as a “daredevil,” one pictures the escape artist dangling from a skyscraper in a straitjacket or plunging, manacled, into an icy river. But his heroics reached greater heights than that: Houdini was as a pioneering aviator, the 25th pilot to fly a powered aircraft!

The idea for including an airplane scene in my thriller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House hit me after I saw a scene from his 1919 movie The Grim Game, in which he climbs from one biplane to another in midair — the only surviving segment of the film. Doing a little digging, I learned just how avid an aviation buff he was.

Daredevil Houdini wing walks in The Grim Game.

Daredevil Houdini wing walks in The Grim Game.

As early as 1908, just five years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, he offered $5,000 for one of their planes, according to The Secret Life of Houdini, a book I found an invaluable resource in my research. His plan was to leap, handcuffed, from a plane over London, escape from the manacles on the way down, open a parachute and land safely at Piccadilly Circus. That plan was scrapped but the following year, he purchased a Voisin E.N.V. 238, built by the French Voisin brothers, for $5,000 and in November of 2009 made his first flight, over a German army parade ground in Hamburg.

Houdini became the first man to fly in Australia, on March 18, 2010

Houdini became the first man to fly in Australia, on March 18, 2010


The magician’s aerial exploits attracted notoriety among impresarios, and so when he went on tour Australia in 2010, his contract called for him to make 10 exhibition flights. He had the honor of being the first person to fly on the continent. An enormous crowd gathered to watch him soar above Digger’s Rest on Mar 18, 2010.

Houdini’s triumph had a lasting impact. The success of a flight by a self-trained amateur raised concern that Australia, long thought to be too isolated to face attack, was vulnerable to an assault by air, especially from Japan. As a result, the government began to forge a fledgling air force.

Houdini never got a chance to do his parachute escape in real life, but I found the notion so captivating, I included one in my novel!

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's greatest magician probe a paranormal  mystery in new thriller.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world’s greatest magician probe a paranormal mystery in new thriller.

How Arthur Conan Doyle Introduced Skiing to England.

The author with his wife Louise ("Touie") on the slopes.

The author with his wife Louise (“Touie”) on the slopes.

By C. Michael Forsyth

When I first began plotting out my novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House I assumed that Houdini would handle all the physical heroics and Conan would be a cool-headed, Holmes-like intellectual. But as I researched the author I quickly discovered that rather than enjoying a sedentary lifestyle, he was a robust man of action, large, strapping and adept at a wide range of sports.

Over the years, Conan Doyle indulged in, and mastered, cricket, soccer, rugby, golf, boxing, car-racing, horsemanship, hunting and biking. He took a swing at baseball while on a trip to North America. In fact, other than Ernest Hemingway, it’s hard to name a writer more suited to the role of action hero.

I was particularly surprised to learn that Conan Doyle was among the very first to ski on the Swiss Alps and introduced his countrymen to the sport.

In 1894, when Conan Doyle visited Norway and Switzerland, skiing was not popular in those countries; few Swiss ever tried downhill skiing. The adventurous author, who’d done cross-country skiing in Norway, had to import a pair of downhill skis from there to Switzerland. He and two Swiss companions “created quite a little excitement” among locals when they swooped down the slopes at Arosa, he wrote his mother proudly.

The source for that is the book Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Life in Letters, which I found enormously helpful. It also quotes an account Conan Doyle wrote for Strand Magazine titled “An Alpine Pass on Ski.” In it, he predicted, accurately, “Ski-ing opens up a field of sport which is, I think unique. I am convicted that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ski-ing season in March and April.”

Conan-Doyle was very proud of his contribution to the sport, later devoting three pages to the subject in his memoirs:

“I think I’m right in saying that these and other excursions of ours first demonstrated their possibilities to the people of the country and have certainly sent a good many thousands of pounds since then into Switzerland. If my rather rambling career in sport has been of any practical value to anyone it is probably in this matter.”

Bicycling was just one of the many sports Conan Doyle enjoyed.

Bicycling was just one of the many sports Conan Doyle enjoyed.

In reading Conan-Doyle’s own words, what was most useful to me as a novelist was to get a sense of his playful manner of speech, warmth and modesty. His magazine article was full of self-deprecating humor.

“There is nothing peculiarly malignant in the appearance of a pair of ski,” he wrote. “No one to look at them would guess at the possibilities which lurk in them. But you put them on and you turn with a smile to see whether your friends are looking at you, and then the next moment you are boring your head madly in to a snowbank and kicking frantically with both feet and half rising to butt viciously into that snowbank again, and your friends are getting more entertaining than they had ever thought of you capable of providing.”

About sliding down the mountainside on his backside in a less than dignified manner, he joked, “My tailor tells me Harris tweed cannot wear out. That will not stand a thorough scientific test.”

Conan Doyle’s autobiography, Memories and Adventures, includes a chapter on his sporting activities that concludes with a summation of the importance of such manly exploits in his life:

“It gives health and strength, but above all it gives a certain balance of mind without which a man is not complete. To give and take, to accept success modestly and defeat bravely, to fight against odds, to give credit to your enemy and value to your friend—these are some of the lessons that true sport should impart.”

Copyright C. Michael Forsyth

May 22 is Conan Doyle’s birthday. So now through Thursday, May 22, my new thriller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House. Best of all, today thru May will be FREE in every eBook format at Smashwords.com Enter coupon code WD87N.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's greatest magician probe a paranormal  mystery in new thriller.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world’s greatest magician probe a paranormal mystery in new thriller.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in the Adventure of the Spook House is continuing to get rave reviews from fans of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

From the Sherlock Holmes Society of London: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House is an adventure story with depth, full of atmosphere, suspense, ingenuity and a real feeling for place, period and personality. Intensive research, a good ear for rhythms of speech and a literate style make for a cracking good read.”

The spanking new book trailer is now up on YouTube.

New York City dwellers, support independent bookstores by purchasing your autographed copy at The Mysterious Bookshop, which specializes in mysteries and is a neat place to browse. It’s located at 58 Warren St in Tribeca, open Monday-Saturday from 11am-7pm. (212) 587-1011

Support independent bookstores!

Support independent bookstores!

The Mysterious Bookshop has been a fixture in New York City for more than 30 years.

The Mysterious Bookshop has been a fixture in New York City for more than 30 years.

The Horror Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

SPOOKY tales abound in collectionl

SPOOKY tales abound in collection.

By C. Michael Forsyth

Every reader knows of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Fewer are aware that he also invented Professor Challenger, whose visit to a plateau frozen in prehistory in The Lost World was a forerunner to Jurassic Park.

But hardly anyone knows that Doyle also wrote many horror stories and was a brilliant master of the genre. A collection of these can be found in The Horror of the Heights & Other Strange Tales. And what a delightful treat these tales are!

I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that the father of literature’s most enduring character would bring considerable creativity to bear. But it’s remarkable how Doyle invented many of the staples of supernatural fiction.

His story “The Great Keinplatz Experiment,” anticipates the many body-swapping movies Hollywood has churned out, such as Freaky Friday, 18 Again, Prelude to a Kiss, and Rob Schneider’s surprisingly hilarious The Hot Chick.

Conan Doyle's mummy tale preceded the 1932 movie.

Conan Doyle’s mummy tale preceded the 1932 movie.

His “Lot 249” introduces the shambling, homicidal mummy that would decades later send chills up the spines of movie goers in The Mummy. Another story, “The Ring of Thoth,” precedes The Mummy’s theme of an immortal Egyptian driven by love spanning the centuries.

The story “The Horror of the Heights,” is about an airplane menaced by a monster that dwells in the clouds. It would be echoed in the classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode in which William Shatner, recovering from a nervous breakdown, is the only passenger aboard a plane to see a mysterious creature tampering with the engine.

As a writer, I’m often frustrated at how often I’ll come up with what I believe to be an original idea for a supernatural story, only to discover that The Twilight Zone got there first. Well, again and again, Conan Doyle beats Rod Serling to the punch.

William Shatner discovers planes can be more dangerous than spaceships in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet."

William Shatner discovers planes can be more dangerous than spaceships in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet.”

The most truly fascinating thing about these stories is that each includes a clearly outlined mechanism for the supernatural occurrence, lending the tales unusual realism.

Remember, Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in the occult. He vouched for mediums and ascribed to their pseudoscientific cosmology (ectoplasm, astral planes and the like). He believed in telepathy, psychometry, clairvoyance — and even fairies, championing those dubious “fairy photographs” as legitimate.

In most modern horror novels and movies, the supernatural element requires total suspension of disbelief. We are simply supposed to accept that there are vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies or whatever, with the why and how left unanswered. In occult-expert Conan Doyle’s stories there is always a logical explanation for the supernatural events, no matter how fantastic. For example, in the body-switching story, the spooky fun starts when a professor and his assistant, sitting side by side, simultaneously attempt out-of-body projection.

And in “Horror of the Heights,” the denizens of the upper atmosphere are life forms that one might reasonably believe could inhabit the sky — unlike the lumbering, Abominable Snowman-like “gremlin” of The Twilight Zone episode.

Long before Boris Karloff appeared in The Mummy, Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of a tragic, immortal Egyptian obsessed with an ancient love

Long before Boris Karloff appeared in The Mummy, Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of a tragic, immortal Egyptian obsessed with an ancient love


Beyond that, the twisty, sometimes grimly humorous stories deliver the requisite scares. There were none that I didn’t like. My favorite was “The Parasite,” in which a hypnotist’s parlor exhibition at a cocktail party leads to harrowing consequences for the subject. This tale features a storyline you definitely WON’T recognize from Hollywood movies. And it builds up to a nail-biting climax even Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t foresee.

This article was written by the author of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's greatest magician probe a paranormal  mystery in new thriller.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world’s greatest magician probe a paranormal mystery in new thriller.