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.”
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
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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