Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Stark Munro Letters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The finances and philosophy of a young doctor
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known, of course, as the author of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and he also wrote many well-known works of fiction in the science fiction, horror, and war genres. In addition to being a successful author, Conan Doyle was also a physician, and his two careers come together in what is likely the least known category of his bibliography, his medical fiction. Among his writings on doctors and medicine are the 1894 short story collection Round the Red Lamp and his 1895 novel The Stark Munro Letters.

The latter work is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters from recent medical school graduate Dr. John Stark Munro to his former classmate Dr. Herbert Swanborough. The novel only presents one side of the correspondence; the reader never sees Swanborough’s replies. In his letters, Munro confides to Swanborough his struggles in finding gainful employment in his chosen profession. Starting a career as a doctor was apparently very difficult in Victorian England, even to the point where Munro finds himself facing abject poverty as he strives to establish himself in a profitable practice. Conan Doyle takes a predominantly lighthearted approach to these struggles, however. Various opportunities present themselves to Munro and eventually fail to pan out, often with humorous results. Much of Munro’s correspondence is devoted to his relationship with another former classmate, Dr. James Cullingworth, a blustery, greedy, unethical doctor who invites Munro to assist him in his practice. The narrative does not really contain much medical content at all, but mostly focuses on the business aspects of running a doctor’s office. Munro’s finances are examined in detail as he sets about renting a suitable home and office, purchasing medicines, and hiring a servant.

A great deal of Munro’s correspondence, however, is devoted to a more surprising subject: religion. Through his letters to Swanborough, Munro expresses his doubts about Christian dogma and formulates his own personal philosophy of God based on his scientific perspective as a physician. These philosophical musings are often more interesting than the medical story, because one can only assume that Munro speaks for Conan Doyle. Thus the reader gets a fair amount of insight into the author’s views on religion, which seem to fall somewhere between Enlightenment era deism and Spinozan pantheism. Munro does not criticize organized religions, however, and like a good Victorian acknowledges the usefulness of all churches in the maintaining of a moral society.

The ending of the book is utterly predictable, since so many of Conan Doyle’s books seem to end the same way. There is a brief but surprising epilogue, however, that is truly unexpected and elevates this otherwise prosaic work above mediocrity. Overall, there is nothing particularly good about The Stark Munro Letters, but there is nothing offensively bad about it either. This book is simply a mildly pleasant and entertaining read, one crafted by an expert storyteller but not one of his better efforts. The more you like Conan Doyle’s writing, the more you will enjoy the book, but casual dabblers in the author’s works should probably stick to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger.
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