About The Author
John O'Connell lives in south London with his wife and children and was for many years the Books Editor at London listings magazine, Time Out. Since then he has continued to write about books for a number of publications including the Times, the Guardian and the New Statesman. His first book, I Told You I Was Ill: Adventures in Hypochondria, was published in 2005.
His first novel is The Baskerville Legacy, which is set in the Edwardian world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who brought us Sherlock Holmes.
When a young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, meets his writer hero Arthur Conan Doyle on a troop ship coming back from South Africa, he is delighted, especially when the creator of Sherlock Holmes suggests they collaborate on a 'real creeper' of a story.
A research trip to deepest Dartmoor cements their friendship as they start work on what is to become one of Doyle's most celebrated tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the experience proves traumatic for both of them and when the result of their labours - Sherlock's comeback vehicle - is finally published, it is credited to one author alone.
John O'Connell's novel is a creeper in its own right: a thrilling exploration of friendship and rivalry, love and lust, ambition and the limits of talent. It takes us from the clattering heart of Edwardian London to the eerie stillness of ancient West Country moorland, where a treacherous mire might swallow a man in seconds.
The novel is based on real-life events. Conan Doyle had abandoned his most famous creation to pursue a long-held interest in spiritualism, which was very much in vogue at the time. So resolute was his belief in the paranormal that he become a very public advocate for the psychic movement. Most infamously, he declared his conviction that the Cottingley fairy photographs were genuine.
But, as John suggests in this article written exclusively for Foyles, we should perhaps not ridicule Conan Doyle for his beliefs. He was alive at a time when science had begun to achieve things at the very edge of human understanding: was contacting the dead really so unreasonable a notion?
Below the article is a list of titles by John O'Connell currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
The Author At Foyles
Towards the end of his life, following the deaths of his brother and eldest son, Arthur Conan Doyle became a passionate proselytiser for spiritualism. He had long had a passing interest - as early as 1893, when he was just 34, he joined the Society for Psychical Research, founded a decade earlier with a brief to put paranormal phenomena on a proper scientific footing.
From 1920 onwards, though, he toured the world delivering lectures to huge crowds attracted by his fame and rock-solid certainty not just that an afterlife existed, but that its inhabitants were contactable. Doyle saw clearly how the First World War had left thousands distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge' and made it his mission to challenge the scepticism that lay between them and happiness, never mind the lack of verifiable evidence.
Between 1920 and 1921 Doyle addressed 50,000 people in Australia alone. While in America he befriended Harry Houdini, but they fell out after Doyle refused to accept the illusionist's view that mediums were simply magicians deploying an assortment of ingenious physical 'tricks'.
Most shockingly, Doyle abandoned his most famous (and most lucrative) creation, Sherlock Holmes, in order to churn out books on spiritualist-related matters, among them a two-volume History of Spiritualism; an account of his own 'wanderings' in the field, The Edge of the Unknown, and The Coming of the Fairies, a defence of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, the two Yorkshire girls who fooled the world with their faked photographs of fairies. (After admitting the deception in the early 1980s, Elsie remarked, "Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle - well, we could only keep quiet.")
That the creator of the arch-rationalist Holmes should have fallen so hard for spiritualism is frequently held up as a sort of supreme irony. There's no doubt that Doyle was, for a man of science, unusually credulous. But it's important to judge him in the context of his times.
The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of massive technological development. Inventions like the telegraph and photography had transformed people's sense of themselves and the world, not to mention the way they worked. My new novel, The Baskerville Legacy, chronicles the friendship between Doyle and the young journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who was his original collaborator on The Hound of the Baskervilles. They met on a troop ship on the way back from South Africa, where Robinson had been covering the Boer War for the Daily Express, and at one point I have Doyle ask Robinson: 'Will the outcome of a battle not reach your office by telegraph a day or two before your reports?' Robinson concedes grudgingly that this is so. His job is now the provision not of news per se but of thrilling reportage.
In December 1901, Marconi used his 'ethereal method' to radiotelegraph the letter 'S' across the Atlantic. Who was to say that, having achieved this, it would not be possible to talk to the spirits of the dead? Elsie and Frances's Cottingley Fairies pictures look ridiculous to us today - ditto 'spirit photographer' Ada Deane's famous photo of the Whitehall Cenotaph surrounded by the floating heads of killed soldiers, a sensation when shown by Doyle to a packed Carnegie Hall in April 1923 - but this was a medium in its infancy. Of course people took its apparent revelations at face value.
In The Baskerville Legacy I suggest that Doyle was au fait with the darker, more exploitative aspects of the medium's trade, and I am certain he was. But he was not insincere - just a hopeless romantic. As he tells Robinson: 'Even some of the mediums who have been caught faking - they weren't actually fakes. They were faking to demonstrate a broader truth.'
Days after Doyle's death on 7th July 1930, his second wife Jean took her seat at the Royal Albert Hall event she had arranged so that public contact might be made with her late husband. Thousands turned up to watch, and a chair was left empty on stage for the great writer's discarnate spirit. His no-show must have been as devastating as it was predictable.
© John O'Connell 2011
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Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle; Christopher...
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