Catherine Wynne
The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. Pp. 248. $61.95

Reviewed by Gerhard van der Linde

In her introduction to The Colonial Conan Doyle, Catherine Wynne outlines the tensions underlying Conan Doyle's writing: Catholicism versus spiritualism, science versus the esoteric, British imperialism versus social justice and Doyle's Irish descent. In this respect, he reflects the Victorian era. The detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes provide some release for these tensions, yet even there some of the themes found in Doyle's Gothic fictions appear.

The Valley of Fear presents such a Gothic motif, "incarceration in a Big House" (42), also suggesting the threat posed in the story by criminal organizations and that posed to England by Irish nationalist secret societies. The moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles "becomes a site for the interplay of Gothic forces" (66). At the same time, it is linked to the politics of land in a colonial context and the contest over land that forms part of Doyle's family history. The hound, suggesting the threat of primitive forces, returns as a motif in the context of Irish politics, in a comparison of the Anglo-Irish establishment with a pack of hounds (83). Even a story set in a purely fictional landscape such as The Lost World has connections to the marshy landscapes of Ireland.

Wynne devotes a considerable amount of space to Doyle's involvement in championing social justice. Thus, "The Crime of the Congo provides a scathing indictment of Belgian policy" in the Belgian Congo (105). Doyle was also linked to the Irish activist Roger Casement, on whom he modeled the character of Lord John Roxton in The Lost World. Sexual transgression and marital violence appears in several of Doyle's fictions, and his awareness of such issues is also reflected in his support for female equality in divorce laws.

Discussing "The Adventure of the Empty House," which is basically a locked-room mystery, Wynne contends that "the narrative also has aspects that simultaneously align it with Victorian pseudosciences, colonial concerns, and twentieth-century politics" (144). I found the connection somewhat forced, since it is not adequately supported by the text itself. Nevertheless, the discussion of Doyle's interest in and writings related to Darwinism, mesmerism, and spiritualism is quite informative. In late-nineteenth-century fictions, the "mesmerists' threat ... lies in their perceived racial otherness" (160), while "susceptibility to mesmerism is ... racially determined" (161). In this sense, the expansion of empire exposed colonizers to the dangers of the occult. The invasion of this threat into the colonizing power's academic institutions is depicted in several of Doyle's narratives. It is interesting to note that Doyle, a staunch supporter of the British Empire, in his later years became increasingly preoccupied with the supernatural, a tendency that Wynne links to his Irish heritage.

On the whole, Wynne convincingly traces the tensions in Doyle's makeup, which are reflected in his oeuvre, and their embeddedness in a particular historical context. Her book offers a fresh perspective on an author usually remembered for his detective fiction and adventure stories.