BOOK REVIEW: The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. DOYLE: A Journey into Madness and Mayhem
By Daniel Friedman, MD and Eugene Friedman, MD
Square One Publishers, 2015

Sometimes it’s not easy being an amateur reviewer, especially with today’s obsession with “spoilers”. You really, really don’t want to give anything away about your subject. But sometimes, it’s almost impossible.

So in this case, if you don’t want to know too much, don’t go reading past the “More” link. Just take my word that this book is a very good recounting of the five “canonical” Jack the Ripper killings, intermingled with an equally good biography of Arthur Conan Doyle in his early years (before he became a famous writer). It’s worth reading for either of those.

The Doctors Friedman, a father and son pair, have taken an interesting approach to the early life of Doyle. He was, after all, trained as a doctor. They also note that just after he was knighted, Doyle was invited to join an exclusive group of gentlemen called “Our Society”, but more informally known as the “Murder Club”. The group included a number of writers, medical and legal professionals, and criminologists. Doyle was with them when they went on a walking tour of the Whitechapel area in London, visiting all the sites of Jack the Ripper’s killings.

In an interesting publishing/editorial decision, the book combines the Doyle biography with a fictionalized recreation of that tour, led by Doyle himself. The chapters alternate their subjects, and alternate fonts. I suppose that makes it easier for the reader, in some fashion.

The Ripper murders are recounted in a matter-of-fact manner. Doyle’s fictional companions on the tour do not get into any speculation on suspects; they are simply told the basic facts of the incidents as one might read in a police report. It’s neither gory nor sensationalized. For anyone interested in Jack the Ripper, I suppose this could be rather refreshing.

The better parts are the biographical ones. The authors have gotten access to Doyle’s school and family medical records, in addition to his own letters and writings. They note that the paper he wrote for his thesis, a brilliant work of scholarship on one of the effects of untreated syphilis, might have been inspired by Doyle’s father’s mental illness. And, having examined Charles Doyle’s medical records, the authors find good reason to believe that Doyle père had that disease. Doyle himself exhibited symptoms of facial neuralgia, which might also be caused by syphilis.

The Friedmans start putting pieces together. Doyle’s medical training gave him the necessary skills. In his youth, he displayed a penchant for practical jokes, impulsive behavior, contempt for authority, and a lack of empathy. In his early career, he displayed great strength and stamina, and seemed to relish getting into fisticuffs. His personal (and family) medical history may have led to obsessive delusions, like his belief in fairies. He also spent two years as a Mason, enough time to become familiar with their rituals and lore.

What do we know about “Jack the Ripper”? Well, he clearly had medical knowledge, good strength and stamina. Lack of empathy is obvious; so is the obsession with prostitutes. His writings, what little we have of them, show contempt for authority and suggest (along with the way some of his victims were mutilated) some knowledge of Masonic lore.

The Friedmans don’t flat out accuse Doyle of being Jack, they just note the similarities and tantalize the reader with the possibility. At this late date, any accusation is just an academic exercise, anyway. It shouldn’t be too hard to determine if Doyle was in London at the time of the killings. That, presumably, is left as an exercise for the reader.

I don’t know if this book will turn out to be a significant contribution to the field of “Ripperology”, but it should certainly be a welcome read for any Doyle fan.

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