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A review of On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling (Writers on Writers) by Michael Dirda
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Princeton University Press has started a new series called Writers on Writers which thus far includes Phillip Lopate on Susan Sontag and C. K. Williams on Walt Whitman. The most recent entrant had its genesis when a fifth-grade boy was reading under the covers during a thunderstorm with some sweets and an Orange Crush.
“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.
The Hound of the Baskervilles “left its teeth marks in me and seriously aroused my then still slumbering passion for reading”; it was “the first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read—and it changed my life.” This last claim is not the exaggeration it might seem since the boy grew up to become the scholarly literary journalist Michael Dirda.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s storytelling genius is no magic lozenge to turns every child into a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, but Dirda is, as he recognizes, only one of many whom the almost vampiric bite of a Conan Doyle tale has turned into a rabid reader. (I can attest to the permanent effects of early Holmes exposure: I surreptitiously read “The Speckled Band” tucked inside my geography book in gradeschool, and I still have hazy knowledge of South America and a compulsion to check the ceilings of bedrooms.)
The story Dirda tells is, in a way, a love story: of falling in love while young and rash and only much later discovering that the object of your passion is even more worthy and glowing than you’d thought. Dirda’s entrancing short tour of Conan Doyle’s character and work blends his early, deeply visceral responses with the more considered judgments that come with contextual experience and rereading, always with a serious deftness unmarred by either jargon or leadfootedness.
Dirda’s conjuring of that significant part of his post-Hound reading influenced by it includes a range of reference, from Dostoyesky to Scrooge McDuck. Imprinted by Holmes, Dirda is attuned to Holmes offshoots everywhere, including outer space, although Mr. Spock perhaps owes more to Mycroft than his younger brother Sherlock. Dirda teases out the Holmes allusions in T. S. Eliot (an acknowledged fan). It reveals a twinkle in Eliot’s eye to link “Macavity the Mystery Cat” to Dr. Moriarty. But it’s a far weirder thing—Dirda describes his college-self as “taken aback”—to hear the echoes of The Hound of the Baskervilles in “East Coker” and to “The Musgrave Ritual” in Murder in the Cathedral.
Working backwards, Dirda finds trace elements of Samuel Johnson and his biographer-interlocutor Boswell in the chemistry between Holmes and Watson. He catches another glimpse of the pair in a set of stories that predate their first appearance by a decade in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales about the Suicide Club (later reprinted in The New Arabian Nights).
And since Sherlock Holmes is one of the first and most recognizable figures from grown-up books that children know, even before they’ve ever read a word of or even listened to the stories, he’s always popping up in unexpected places. Kenneth Grahame paid an early homage when Ratty in The Wind in the Willow dons a deerstalker as he goes in search of his lost friend Mole. I recall the title of a playlet I found terrifically witty as a young teen called Hounded by Basketballs, and I’ve recently seen Holmes references in the television cartoons “Phineas and Ferb,” “Animaniacs,” and, for French children, “Lucky Luke.” Holmes might, in fact, be an important way in which children first learn the pleasures of allusion and parody, two of the more sophisticated of the arts of storytelling.
Conan Doyle is far more than Holmes, of course. And Dirda, as a dutiful enthusiast, has tracked down and read what certainly feels like everything produced by our prolific author, although, perhaps to preserve his modesty, he claims that a few still lie before him such as “his last, reportedly very muddled book, The Maracot Deep.” Instead, Dirda presents only his choicest selections. There are the relatively familiar Professor Challenger stories, the most famous of which is The Lost World. (Like a magician pulling a peacock out of a hat, Dirda quotes a passage from a Professor Challenger story and out pops pitch-perfect Bertie-and-Jeeves dialogue. Wodehouse, naturally, was a fan.)
There are many tales of the supernatural such as “Lot No. 249.” I may skip “The Case of Lady Sannox” whose “gruesome climax” includes a doctor performing a disfiguring operation on a veiled Muslim woman, but I plan to search out the ghost story “The Bully of Brocas Court.” The not easily categorizable “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” was so convincing a reimagining of what happened on the Mary Celeste that some newspapers were fooled into thinking it an authentic account.
I was particularly happy to see The White Company capture Dirda’s extended attention—one of Conan Doyle’s historical novels, it’s set during the Hundred Years’ War with a motley band of archers under the command of the sweet-natured bald-headed Sir Nigel. It has been our family’s winter read-aloud book, and thus I can attest to its continued ability to charm and amuse a wide range of ages. Thanks to Dirda, we now have a good follow-up previously unknown to me: The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and its sequel. These two novels are presented as reminiscences of the inadvertently comic French soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and partly inspired, in style though not in moral fiber, George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman. Dirda concludes this volume with a talk he gave to the Baker Street Irregulars—a jeu d’esprit that shows not the arrested development one might fear but his mastery of Holmes Studies.
Dirda’s book itself resembles another Conan Doyle “masterpiece,” Through the Magic Door, a “celebration of his favorite authors” for children in which we see his impassioned didacticism:
You can forgive old Pepys a good deal of his philandering when you remember that he was the only official of the Navy Office who stuck to his post during the worst days of the Plague. He may have been—indeed, he assuredly was, a coward, but the coward who has a sense of duty is the most truly brave of mankind.
Dirda is less didactic in this volume, but no less willing to offer judgments informed by long affection. His book is quite short, a lovely size for reading in odd moments or, perhaps, by the fire with a glass of something delicious by your side. Conan Doyle once filled out a questionnaire that asked his ideal of happiness: “time well filled.” Whatever the industrious and warmly earnest Conan Doyle—who also gave his favorite occupation as “work”—might think, the pack of the Hound-bitten is happiest on the scent of one of his ingenous entertainments. How can I resist? “Quick, Watson, the game’s afoot!”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 February 2012, on page 74
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