I knew I’d cause a sensation when I walked into the Imaginary Writers’ Room in my mind yesterday. I was holding one of my favorite biographies, “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle,” by Daniel Stashower (New York, 1999: Henry Holt and Company).
Robert Louis Stevenson saw the gold letters on the back cover, “TELLER OF TALES,” and he brightened. “Good morning, Margaret!” he said from his favorite sofa on the side of the room. “What are they writing about me these days?”
“Good things, as ever, Louis,” I said, “especially the more I join in. But this isn’t part of them.”
“It’s not?” said Stevenson. “But that’s the name the Samoans gave me!”
He looked around wildly at the committee of great writers — Robert Burns, T.S. Elliot, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier and, at the head of the conference table, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — who make up the imaginary writers’ committee in my mind.
“Sir Arthur?” said Stevenson. “Mr. Chairman, shouldn’t the committee start an investigation of this?”
“Don’t worry, Sir Arthur — don’t worry, Louis,” I told them. “We won’t need any investigations by M. Poirot or the man from Baker Street.”
Arthur relaxed at the thought that the latter name wasn’t being called in. “You’ve solved it, then?” he asked me.
I turned the book over and showed the front cover to everyone — with “TELLER OF TALES” in larger letters across a portrait of Arthur.
“Well,” said Stevenson, slightly less miffed.
“Don’t worry, my friends,” I said. “This is what Mr. Milne called a Sustaining Book. Dad loved it, and I enjoy reading and re-reading it… especially now that I noticed it contains information about several of you!”
“Do go on,” said T.S. Elliot.
“Actually, Tom, the epigram for the whole book is from you,” I told Elliot. It reads like this:
“Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence. Collins, after all, is more real to his readers than Cuff; Poe is more real than Dupin; but Sir A. Conan Doyle, the eminent spiritualist of whom we read in Sunday papers, the author of a number of exciting stories which we read years ago and have forgotten, what has he to do with Holmes?”
I could have sworn I heard a familiar voice saying “As little as possible, that’s what!” from the head of the table.
“People might not be familiar with your disappearance, Dame Agatha,” I told Agatha Christie gently, “but this book points out that Sir Arthur not only knew about it, he worked on the case.”
That’s one of my favorite memories from my first time through the book; the chapter about it begins “It was in December of the year 1926 that all England was interested, and the publishing world dismayed, by the disappearance of Mrs. Agatha Christie, under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances.”
“You noted the influence there, Margaret?” said Arthur.
“Without looking it up in… your collected stories,” I said, carefully omitting the name of Holmes. “I knew in a couple of minutes that it was your style, from the very beginning of ‘The Adventure of the Empty House.’ It IS my favorite short story of all, you know.”
Elliot, Christie, Stevenson and du Maurier wilted, but Sir Arthur beamed at me. “Well then, it’s been good for something after all,” he said.
“But does the book mention me, beside borrowing my title?” said Stevenson.
“Six times in the index,” I said. “It mentions the correspondence between you and the way Arthur spoke and wrote of your legacy.”
Speaking of legacies, I saw an opening.
“I know time doesn’t matter to great beings like you any longer,” I said, carefully chosing “beings” to appeal to Sir Arthur’s famous spiritualist views. “But today is May 22 on Earth — so it’s Sir Arthur’s birthday.”
“What sort of dinner parties are being held?” said Robert Burns.
“Awa’ wi’ your bother,” I told the Bard affectionately. “Parties are still quite limited because of the virus — in fact, I feel a bit crowded in here!”
Agatha and Daphne gestured to an open chair on what they’d clearly made “the ladies’ side” of the conference table. I smiled my thanks, enjoying not needing to take away my mask to do so.
“So I decided that the best way to have a party for a writer, particularly in these virus-ridden times, is to have a party in writing.”
“To our chairman,” said T.S. Elliot, “three cheers.”
We ladies started the “Hip-hip,” and all of the other gentlemen, except Arthur, cried “Hooray!”
“Now, Margaret,” said Agatha, “tell us about this second detective story of yours.”
“Well, Agatha,” I said, “the heroine and her friendly policeman are investigating the death of a biology professor.”
I hadn’t been sure Arthur could hear me, but he and Agatha said in unison “Be careful to get the poisons explained correctly!”
“I will,” I said. I’ll have to explain it to them if I don’t!
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.