Through a Glass, Darkly, by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains

through a glass cvr

The authors of Through a Glass, Darkly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All do not make any great claims for their book, stating that ‘it aspires to be a jolly romp, rather than a scholarly treatise.  While raising the profound questions inherent in this material, we aimed to favour high spirits, delicious speculations, and compelling scenes and characters.’  It can certainly be taken on those relaxed terms, and is enjoyable as such, but leaves open the question why it was written when the ground it covers has been so well trodden.  Ostensibly about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it rambles around to the extent that he is often absent for long stretches.  Any ‘profound questions’ asked tend not to receive answers of equal profundity.

We begin with the Fox sisters in 1848 before moving on to a selection of snippets both from the early history of Spiritualism and from Conan Doyle’s biography; his growing interest in Spiritualism and psychical research turning into complete dedication; the Cottingley fairies; Harry Houdini, his and Conan Doyle’s friendship and falling out; the controversy over the medium Margery (Mina Crandon), though not utilising David Jaher’s recent The Witch of Lime Street; and Eileen Garrett and the R101 airship.  A major omission is Conan Doyle’s involvement in the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, which investigated spirit photography.  The irrepressible Houdini hijacks the narrative for long stretches and one gets the impression Bechtel and Stains found him a more interesting subject to write about than Conan Doyle.

Sadly, there is nothing new here.  A vast literature on Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and their complex relationship already exists.  The contrast between rational Holmes and Conan Doyle’s tireless but often credulous work on behalf of Spirit, dressed up as scientific but unable to see fraud when it should have been obvious, is hardly a novel one.  To their credit Bechtel and Stains are even-handed in their approach and refuse to sneer when sneering would have been all too easy.  As a result it isn’t a terrible book; the authors have used a good range of secondary sources and been to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and their journalistic experience has produced an engaging synthesis.  If it encourages new readers to delve more deeply into the subject it will have performed a useful service.

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