DAY 85
Henrietta McKervey

In search of Kingsley

100 days
100 lives
100 words

The world moves ever-forward, yet I am turning in the contrary direction, with no ability to right myself. The war is won, my son is lost.

“In the twelve years up to 1918 Conan Doyle lost his first wife, brother, two brothers-in-law, two nephews and then Kingsley, his eldest son. The version of Arthur Conan Doyle I was curious about was the one who seemed to lack logic: who sincerely believed he could achieve and maintain contact with those who had died.” Henrietta McKervey

Creating the Centena

Arthur Conan Doyle’s mother had words with him when he complained ‘Holmes takes my mind from better things’. There was no ‘better thing’ he could do than continue to write Holmes, in her opinion. And though Conan Doyle became thoroughly fed up with his creation at times, literary posterity agrees with his mother. Holmes’ reputation remains safe. Watson, too. They are unassailable. But what about Sir Arthur himself? His own reputation hasn’t fared so well: a 2004 biography claimed he was cruelly unfeeling toward the son and daughter of his first marriage, and his ardent belief in spiritualism has long since been derided.

In Victorian detective fiction, ‘the great defect’ as the editor of the Strand Magazine saw it, was the lack of logic. Holmes had logic in spades. (The Strand was also where Holmes was given his famous deerstalker, by illustrator Sidney Paget.) In the twelve years up to 1918 Conan Doyle lost his first wife, brother, two brothers-in-law, two nephews and then Kingsley, his eldest son. The version of Arthur Conan Doyle I was curious about was the one who seemed to lack logic: who sincerely believed he could achieve and maintain contact with those who had died.

My latest book Violet Hill (publ. by Hachette, June 2018), is about detection, identity and deception, and is set both in 1918 and in 2018. Violet Hill is London’s only female investigator in 1918, and is asked to take a case of fraud, supposedly perpetrated by a strange American spiritualist called JC Selbarre (her 2018 parallel is a member of the Met Police Super-Recogniser Unit).

At the end of WW1 there was widespread belief in the spirit world as a way of communicating with the dead. People were desperate to contact their dead, and for many, spiritualism gave what God could not.
Henrietta McKervey

© Henrietta McKervey

The image I chose to accompany the piece, a photo of a tumbledown church I took on the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetlands, felt to me as though it tapped into that split between God and the world of the spirit, as well as a sense of Scotland as Conan Doyle might have experienced it.

There is a human tragedy at the heart of Conan Doyle’s story – a man loses his son – which is made more complex by that man’s belief that he can maintain contact with his child through spiritualism, spirit photography and writing. I tracked Conan Doyle though writing – both his own, and those who have used him as a character, such as Arthur & George by Julian Barnes; and the excellent University of Cambridge piece. It discusses the address on the science of spirits Conan Doyle gave to the John Ray Society in the Michaelmas Term of 1926, which he began with a description of ectoplasm. I also used contemporary accounts, and Captain Arthur Alleyne Kingsley Conan Doyle’s record in the IWM Lives of the First World War series.

Lives of the First World War

Read more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life story on Lives of the First World War

About the writer

Henrietta McKervey

photo © Matthew Thompson

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