Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Interview: Alistair Duncan

The loveliness of Sherlockians never ceases to amaze me, which is why I keep trying to meet them as often as I can, especially when I'm abroad. So, just before I left for the UK this time, I put out a message I'd be in town - and Alistair and I decided to meet up. I turned up in Chiswick after dropping off my bags at the hotel and Alistair treated me to a lovely lunch and a wonderful conversation.
 
Alistair Duncan is pretty well known as a leading expert in all things Conan Doyle, so I don't really need to introduce him. What I will do, therefore, is to put down the interview questions I'd asked him and his responses. The occasion? Release of the third book in his Conan Doyle trilogy - "No Better Place", which examines the period 1907 - 1930 - a time not often dealt with by writers, as Steve says. Luckily, I also had the chance to meet Steve (Emecz), the happy publisher of Alistair's trilogy, a few days ago, and there's a nice video of him talking about the book.
 
So, here we go:
 
Chiswick, 4 August 2015
 

 

1. Would you call yourself a Sherlockian, a Holmesian or a Doyle(whatever)?
The first two are basically the same thing – I certainly don’t draw any distinction between the two. The third option is Doylean. I consider myself to be all of the above.
 
(J's Note: There's a bit of an explanation on this one. I told Alistair, quite frankly, "I don't know the correct term for Doyle enthusiasts, hence the blank. So far, I've heard the terms Doylean, Doylist and Doylockian - and none of them sounded quite right to me. What is the right term?" The gracious response was, "I believe I was the first person to coin the term Doylockian but that was purely as the title for my blog. People don't tend to blend Holmes and Doyle into one word. I don't think there is a "right" term. I personally use Doylean.")

2. You are an authority on both Sir Arthur and Holmes – which, in your opinion, is the better man? Why?
Both the man and the character had flaws and ACD liked to use Holmes to occasionally exorcize his own demons. Each of them is better than the other depending on which aspect of their characters you look at. Overall I’d say that they come out equal.

3. Your “Close to Holmes” has helped many a Sherlockian/Holmesian across the globe – thoughts?

Well it’s naturally nice to know that people have found the book to be of use. I tried to make it usable from a chair as well as on the streets of London.

4. You are a leading authority on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Would you say Sherlock Holmes is his best work?

It’s very subjective. It is most certainly his most enduring work. From his perspective his historical romances were his best work in fiction (especially The White Company). Aside from this he most rated his work on Spiritualism.

5. The third instalment of your biography of Sir Arthur is due soon. Do tell us more about the series: how it came about, what inspired you – and the frankly mind-blowing amount of research that shines through the work.

After I completed Close to Holmes I was determined to write another book but I had no idea what to write about. At the time, I was living in South Norwood and was only about 20 minutes’ walk from Conan Doyle’s former house on Tennison Road. I already owned a number of biographies on Conan Doyle and had noticed that they all skimmed the South Norwood years. While they contained information on the main family events of that time and the books ACD had written,  none talked about his day-to-day life. I knew that ACD was a man who always threw himself into his local community and it stood to reason that the years in South Norwood would not be any different.

I had easy access to the main library in Croydon where all regional newspapers were held on microfilm. I decided that I was best placed (at least geographically) to have a go at chronicling the South Norwood years and off I went. The Norwood Author was the result.

I had no intention of doing anything else but I was later persuaded to chronicle ACD’s years in Haslemere and Hindhead which I began in May 2010. The completed book An Entirely New Country was published in December 2011.

Naturally people asked if I would do any more but I shied away from it. I had no desire to tackle ACD’s Spiritualist period. I don’t believe in Spiritualism and I felt the only way the subject could be tackled was even-handedly. In all the biographies I’d read, the authors had made their positions clear at the outset and had treated the subject from that stated position. So it was either total belief or total disbelief (often accompanied by something close to mockery).

I wrote an article called A Case of Biographical Identity for the SHSL Journal in 2011, in which I stated that the subject had to be tackled even-handedly regardless of the personal belief of the biographer.

I doubted my ability to do this and determined to leave the subject alone.

My friend Brian Pugh (famous for his excellent ACD Chronology) was one of those who had asked if I was going to attempt those final 23 years and when I told him I wasn’t he intimated that he might try himself. I had faith in his ability having read his excellent biography of Bertram Fletcher Robinson (written with Paul Spiring).

At the beginning of 2014 I was unhappy that I’d not yet written another book (I really enjoy writing) and was casting around for an idea. However, I kept coming back to the Spiritualist period of ACD’s life. I contacted Brian who confirmed that he was no longer considering the idea and I finally decided to do it. The result, No Better Place, is officially released on August 10th 2015. I flatter myself that I have been balanced in my approach to Spiritualism but that is really up to the reader to decide.
As to my level of research. It stems from something that could be described as a mild form of OCD. I am almost literally terrified of missing something or getting something wrong. I will therefore quadruple check everything I uncover,  look for at least two or three corroborating sources for each item of research and run my thoughts by other ACD experts. Brian Pugh and Georgina Doyle have been great supports to me in that regard.
 
6. What would you consider to be the best period of Sir Arthur’s writing? What do you think made it so?

If you’re looking at his entire body of work, I would have to say the Hindhead years were his best. He produced his work in connection with George Edalji, his Boer War accounts and of course the third series of Sherlock Holmes short stories. When he left Hindhead his peak years were definitely behind him. For the non-fiction his burning desire for justice drove the quality of his results.
If you look purely at his Holmes output, his peak years were the South Norwood years when he penned the first two series of Holmes short stories.

7. Do you think Sir Arthur really disliked Sherlock? He must have loved the detective initially, at least. What do you think went wrong in the middle? Would you say Holmes and his maker were reconciled in the end?

I don’t think he ever disliked Sherlock. I think, if anything, he disliked the public’s obsession with Sherlock which is not the same thing. He recognised and acknowledged (repeatedly) that it was Holmes that directly led to his fame and fortune as a writer. Despite any anti-Sherlock things he may have said to people (especially journalists), his ire was more towards the public demand for Holmes that it was against Holmes himself.

I think he definitely made peace with Holmes shortly after penning his last Holmes story. He told a journalist (who interviewed him following the final story’s publication) that he now imagined Holmes and Watson in a literary afterlife. In so doing he effectively brought Holmes and his passion for Spiritualism together which I think, in his own mind, was the highest compliment he could pay Holmes and Watson.

8. The difference between Holmes up to FINA and post-resurrection EMPT onwards – thoughts?
Holmes is probably at his peak in the first set of short stories (Adventures). In the Memoirs, ACD knows that he’s going to finish off Holmes and I think he puts a lot of effort into finishing the series off in style. Nonetheless that set of stories is not better than the first (although they could be regarded as equal).
In the Return we see that ACD is writing Holmes slightly grudgingly but, at the same time, he’s got some enthusiasm because he has been able to do other things in the meantime. He also knows, and is encouraged by, the sheer financial reward of what he’s writing.

It’s the final two series, His Last Bow and the Casebook where we see things go downhill. Aside from some gems like The Illustrious Client and The Problem of Thor Bridge, we have some pretty dire efforts (such as The Creeping Man) which graphically illustrate that Holmes was no longer anything more than a money making machine for ACD.

9. What should we expect next from your pen? (Or keyboard!)
Not a clue at this point. I hope that an idea will occur to me or be suggested to me.
 
(J's Note: We had a nice little chat about how he should consider a pocket edition of "Close to Holmes." I do wish he'd do that!)

10. Any messages for your fans?
I have fans? That’s gratifying! Thanks for reading (and liking?) my books. As soon as I begin another I shall let you know.
 
And here's Steve's interview on one of his favourite Sherlockians: