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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A LIFE IN LETTERS, by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, The Penguin Press, 706 pages, $37.95; THE MAN WHO CREATED SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, by Andrew Lycett, Free Press, 557 pages, $30.

Arthur Conan Doyle almost failed to become an author. He is best known for his detective Sherlock Holmes books — but Doyle was a much more diverse man than that indicates. Following an incomplete medical degree and a trip to the Arctic, where he was a surgeon on a whaling ship, the 20-year-old Doyle, a Scottish native, returned to Edinburgh where he tried to make a medical practice work and wrote short stories.

By 1890, his Sherlock Holmes stories had developed a following — but Doyle was involved in other things as well. He became a doctor during the Boer War in South Africa, a real-life investigator, a champion of divorce-law reform, an agent to overturn unjust convictions, a World War I correspondent, an unsuccessful candidate for parliament and a spiritualist missionary.

He also introduced skiing to the Alps. In short, Doyle was a renaissance man.

His collection of 1,000 surviving letters and papers, previously unpublished, reveal much about his turn of mind over a period of 54 years. He wrote about literary matters, current events, the theater, his longing for another woman when his wife was ill, his dismay over the failure of his other writings to catch on and his irritation over Sherlock Holmes haunting him.

Most of his substantive letters were written to his domineering mother, a defect for the reader of this compilation because most people write cautious letters to their mothers — and Doyle appeared to have been no exception.

The biography of Doyle, written by the Oxford-educated Andrew Lycett, reflects some of these same writings. Lycett also has written critically successful biographies of Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming. Lycett seems especially effective in explaining how such a scientifically minded writer as Doyle veered off into believing in seances, fairies and communicating with the dead.

Lycett believes that Doyle was romantic, energetic, idealistic — yet also selfish and foolhardy.

One of the most interesting side roads in Doyle's life was his effort to clear the reputation of George Edalji, a 30-year-old lawyer who served three years of a seven-year sentence for the crime of mutilating sheep, cattle and horses. Edalji was the son of an Indian vicar who presided over a church in Staffordshire, England.

When Doyle got involved in the case, he found that the evidence against Edalji was either false or fabricated — and that he had a virtually watertight alibi. Moreover, because of poor eye sight, Edalji would not have been able to commit crimes in dark fields in the dead of night. It soon became clear that Edalji had been a victim of discrimination because of his dark skin.

(This story is beautifully told in fictional form in Julian Barnes' "Arthur and George," a more interesting book than either Doyle book.)

When all is said and done and both books are digested, it seems clear that as diverse as Doyle's interests were, his greatest accomplishment was indeed Sherlock Holmes. He probably should have devoted more time to his literary and detective talents — and been more grateful for them.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com