On Conan Doyle

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda offers a love letter to Arthur Conan Doyle, the author he credits with changing his life.

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    On Conan Doyle:
    Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling
    By Michael Dirda
    Princeton Univ. Press
    232 pp.
    View Caption

“No, Mr. Holmes.  They were the footsteps of a gigantic hound.”  Is there anyone who doesn’t still feel a shiver at those words?  Michael Dirda felt it at the age of 10, when he first read Arthur Conan Doyle’s "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Little did he know it, but the experience would send him on the way to his life’s work. He pays homage to the author of those words with his new book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling.

Dirda is the Pulitzer Prize winning book reviewer for The Washington Post and author of the essay collections "Readings," "Bound to Please," "Book by Book," and "The Classics for Pleasure," as well as the memoir "An Open Book."

Dirda says of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," “[It] was the first 'grown-up' book I ever read – and it changed my life.”

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"On Conan Doyle" is at once a biography, an appreciation of the Holmes stories, an insightful overview of the other works written by Doyle, and a billet-doux to the Baker Street Irregulars. It is also a memoir of a young man’s reading experience.

Doyle was, by any measure, a remarkable man. He was trained as a doctor and specialized in ophthalmology. In fact, some of the methods of Holmes were based on the real-life analytical methods of one of Doyle’s professors, Joseph Bell.

Doyle began writing while practicing medicine, producing historical novels like "Micah Clarke" and "The White Company."  But with the publication of the Holmes stories he became one of the most popular writers of fiction in the English-speaking world and he abandoned medicine.

In time Doyle disparaged the stories of the great consulting detective because he thought they were frivolous. Doyle felt that fiction should be instructive and have moral weight. “The best literary work,” he wrote, “is that which leaves the reader better for having read it.” Providing plots for the detective to solve interfered with what he saw as his true purpose. And so, in desperation he killed off Holmes in the famous struggle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem.” But the reading public created a tremendous clamor to bring Holmes back. And so he did.

Almost all of Doyle’s other fiction has been relegated to the shadows created by the brilliance of the Holmes stories. Nevertheless Dirda makes a good case for these other books. Doyle wrote ghost stories and stories of the supernatural, science fiction, and historical fiction. Dirda regards "The White Company" and "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard" as historical romances second only to those of Dumas and Walter Scott. He admires the brio of Doyle’s plotting and the “bounce” of his prose, and makes a very good case for Doyle as a stylist. 

Doyle was a “public intellectual,” in the current meaning of the phrase, a writer who who took up his pen to advance a variety of causes, including liberalized divorce laws. Dirda dismisses Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and fairies with the words “Nobody is perfect.”

But it is the Holmes stories that drew Dirda – and that draw us – to consider the work of Arthur Conan Doyle in the first place. Though Holmes had a precursor in Poe’s Auguste Dupin, which Doyle freely admitted, every detective story after him was either an act of homage to the master, or an act of rebellion. Without Holmes there would have been no Father Brown, no Peter Wimsey, no Hercule Poirot, no Nero Wolfe, and, dare I say it, no Philip Marlowe.

There would also have been no Baker Street Irregulars, nor any of the hundred other Sherlockian societies that constitute the freemasonry of Holmes enthusiasts. The Irregulars, into the company of which Dirda has been inducted, are a group of people from all walks of life who are Holmes aficionados, collectors, and scholars. They treat Holmes as if he were a real person. They meet several times a year to present serious papers as well as humorous speeches and faux Holmes stories. Dirda himself wrote a lively take-off on a Holmes story, which he includes in his book.

Dirda’s first encounter with Holmes was the beginning of a great romance. He recaptures in this book the life-changing ecstasy that reading can be for a child.  "On Conan Doyle" is a celebration of that experience and an invitation to turn again to the world of gaslight and hansom cabs where “the game is afoot.”

F. Cord Volkmer is a freelance book and music critic

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