Through the Magic Door by Arthur Conan Doyle

An invitation to take a tour of the bookshelves of Arthur Conan Doyle was an invitation not to be refused, and I was smitten from the first.

188817398X_01__SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_“I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer’s ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.”

I was in the company of a man who loved his books as much as I love mine. His tastes and mine were fairly different – and of course I have the advantage of choosing from an extra century of books –  but he conveyed his love for every book and author he wrote about wonderfully well.

I’ve been inspired by inspired by his words about Scott, Zola and Meredith,  I loved reading about his great interest in the Napoleonic War, and I appreciated his words about my native Cornwall:

“There is something wonderful, I think, about that land of Cornwall. That long peninsula extending out into the ocean has caught all sorts of strange floating things, and has held  them there in isolation until they have woven themselves into the texture of the Cornish race. What is this strange strain which lurks down yonder ….. ?

That’s not to say that I want to read them all . I don’t think that authors like Carlyle, Boswell and Sterne will spreak to me, but I understand now that they will speak to others.

Although this is a short book I took a while to read it, because it was book after book after book, author after author after author. And its a very masculine book with only fleeting mentions of women who wrote.

But what has stayed with me since I finished reading is a picture of a man who loved reading, and who wanted to read and build a collection of the very best books:

“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before. Then gradually the good thing becomes more dear to you; it builds itself up with your growing mind; it becomes a part of your better self, and so, at last, you can look, as I do now, at the old covers and love them for all that they have meant in the past.”

Reading sentiments like that, and reading such eloquent declarations of love for the written word was a joy.

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams by Jane Robins

17971489It’s lovely when you spot a book and everything  falls into place. The title caught my eye, the cover made it look promising, and when I placed that name Jane Robins I knew that I was in safe hands. I had been very taken with her book about the case of the brides in the bath. I’d known of that case – though I’d not known much about it – before I picked the book up, but I had no idea at all who Doctor Adams was.

I was to find out ….

John Bodkin Adams was born and raised in Ireland, the son of a strict, religious mother. He set out to raise himself, and to make his mother proud by going to medical school. It soon became clear that his ambition and aspirations outstripped his talents, but he managed to qualify as a doctor, and to establish himself in a medical practice in Eastbourne.

It did not take very long at all for Doctor Adams to acquire all of the trappings of wealth. He had a grand house; his staff included a chauffeur, gardener and housekeeper; and his fleet of cars included a Rolls Royce. However did a general practitioner fund such a lavish lifestyle?

It seems that Doctor Adams had a particular speciality, a gift for taking care of elderly widows. He knew that most of their problems came from being fragile, from being troubled by their nerves, and so he prescribed them sedatives, in increasing amounts. He visited them daily, he reassured them, looking after their house, their staff, advising their solicitors, relieving them of all their worries. They loved him. At least, most of them did.

In the end though, they all died. And it was natural that there would be a legacy for the doctor ….

There was a great deal of gossip about Doctor Adams, and in time the police became suspicious. The doctor was horribly secretive about how he was treating his patients. He was quick to sign a death certificate that recorded a natural death, declaring that he would not benefit from the deceased’s will even when he knew that he would. And he even organised the funerals, over the heads of family and friends, usually arranging for the body to be cremated.

Jane Robins told the stories of so many women, clearly and lucidly, and with a keen eye for signoficant details. The window left wide open on a cold day, the nurse sent out of the room for no good reason, the valuable ‘gifts’ taken home by the doctor while his patients lay unconscious in their beds. Those details were telling, and at times heart-breaking.

There was no doubt that Doctor Adams was unprofessional and self serving. That he was arrogant, insensitive, hostile to criticism, and driven by a need for money, status and social position. But was he killing his patients? There was a great deal of evidence, so much of it was circumstantial, the situation was sensitive, and it all hung on the doctor’s intent ….

It didn’t help that at the time – after the war but before the NHS – doctors were regarded with great reverence and respect, and that it was unthinkable to question a doctor’s treatment of his patients. Other local doctors – even though they surely must have questioned many aspects of his behaviour –  closed ranks and refused to help the police.

A senior officer from Scotland Yard to be assigned to the case, a  Home Office pathologist identified 163 suspicious cases, and after many months and two exhumations Doctor Adams was charged with murder. Just one case, the case that police thought most likely to bring about a conviction, but  second charge was prepared, and would be made if the first charge failed.

The account of the investigation, the arrest and the trial is just as striking, just as compelling as what came before.

The facts were very well presented, the research was clearly as thorough as it possibly could be, and there were so many questions to be asked about the handling of the investigation and the trial.

I drew my own conclusions, and at the very end Jane Robins drew hers. We agreed.

Though neither of us can ever know …