Thursday, October 6, 2016

Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Assorted tales of doctors and patients
In addition to being a successful writer of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a physician. He worked as both a general practitioner and as an ophthalmologist. His book Round the Red Lamp, published in 1894, is a collection of 15 short stories of medical life. The title refers to a tradition among doctors of Conan Doyle’s day. British physicians would post a red lamp outside their offices to signify their profession, similar to how a striped pole represents a barber.

The medical scope of the collection is rather loose, admitting pretty much anything that remotely relates to doctors and patients. The only way “A Question of Diplomacy” qualifies, for example, is because one of the main characters suffers from gout. There are also examples of the mystery and horror genres in which doctors feature prominently. “The Los Amigos Fiasco” is a crime story with paranormal elements. “The Case of Lady Sannox,” which also appears in Conan Doyle’s collection Tales of Terror and Mystery, is a medical horror story. Neither of the two are very good, as both require some pretty heavy suspension of disbelief, but another story from the horror genre, “Lot No. 249,” is excellent. It’s an expertly crafted thriller about medical students terrorized by a mummy.

Despite these forays into the genres for which Conan Doyle is famous, most of the stories in the collection do deal directly with the medical profession. A few of the selections, like “A Medical Document” and “The Surgeon Talks” are somewhat patchwork pieces in which fictional physicians relate various anecdotes illustrating the highs and lows of their careers. One of the better entries, “A False Start,” provides a glimpse of the medical profession that we don’t often see. It chronicles the occupational life of a young doctor just starting out in his practice. He faces hard times as he tries to drum up business and build a client base, longing for a big break that will ensure his financial security. Another good specimen, “The Doctors of Hoyland,” concerns a country physician who enjoys the comfort of his own private medical fiefdom, until another doctor invades his domain and competes for his customers. Though a bit formulaic, it offers enough unpredictable turns to prove engaging.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the stories venture into the territory of medical melodrama. More than a century before ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and Chicago Hope, audiences were already finding entertainment in operating table dramas and deathbed dilemmas. The collection also includes a fair amount of romance. “A Physiologist’s Wife” and “A Question of Diplomacy” have more to do with marriage than medicine. “The Curse of Eve” is a typical husband-frets-in-the-waiting-room-while-his-wife-gives-birth story. The medical stories included here seem more deliberate in their emotional manipulation than Conan Doyle’s usual fare. Perhaps that’s simply because while he’s usually inciting thrills or chills, here he’s trying to squeeze the tears out of you.

This is far from Conan Doyle’s best collection of short stories. In fact, it may be one of his worst, along with The Green Flag. Even so, it’s Conan Doyle, and mediocre Conan Doyle is still pretty good literature. So if you’re a fan of this master storyteller, it can’t hurt to give this one a try. If nothing else, “Lot No. 249” is definitely worth a read.

Stories in this collection
Behind the Times 
His First Operation 
A Straggler of ’15 
The Third Generation 
A False Start 
The Curse of Eve 
A Physiologist’s Wife 
The Case of Lady Sannox 
A Question of Diplomacy 
A Medical Document 
Lot No. 249 
The Los Amigos Fiasco 
The Doctors of Hoyland 
The Surgeon Talks

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