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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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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. 

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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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