ON CONAN DOYLE: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling
By Michael Dirda
Princeton University Press, 232 pp., $19.95
MICHAEL DIRDA IS A writer's reader. The author of four volumes of essays and a memoir, An Open Book, he grew up in an Ohio factory town, studied literature at Oberlin and Cornell, and since 1978 has reviewed books for The Washington Post, work for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Dirda as critic is sympathetic, generous, and not squeamish about provenance: "Sometimes you want to read Sartre," he notes, "and sometimes you want to read Spillane."
This slim volume is part of the Writers on Writers series, which invites authors to describe their "complex and sometimes fraught" connections with other writers. Dirda on Arthur Conan Doyle weaves a triple tale: Doyle's life and career, the quality and influence of his works, and Dirda's own ascension from grammar-school bibliophile to votary of the Baker Street Irregulars, an august fanboy sodality as demented and affectionate as any Star Trek collective--except for the Irregulars, "it is always 1895."
One of Dirda's most useful achievements in On Conan Doyle is the persuasive, detailed refraining of an underestimated writer. We learn to appreciate him first as Dr. Doyle, a man of medicine drawn by the uses of close observation in diagnosis, then as a literary figure whose influence extends from the gaslight era to the talkies, his hearty Victorian taste for valor and realism balancing a social conscience second only to that of Dickens. Doyle rarely preaches, and readers have returned the compliment by making Sherlock Holmes one of the most famous characters in literature.
Like Ahab or Gatsby, Holmes is a scene-stealing charismatic; and like a human Wikipedia, he distills and interprets the most insubstantial evidence--a dab of clay, a piece of railway ticket--with dazzling ease. Holmes is a thinking machine, but also an ethical being. As Dirda wisely observes, the stories are less murder mysteries than "moral fictions," and the great detective never uses his powers "upon the wrong side."
In person Doyle was unaffected and hard working, much like the sober Dr. John Watson, flatmate and confidante to the irrepressible Holmes. Doyle published 21 novels and 150 short stories, some brisk adventure tales, such as The Lost World, but also a Jules Verne--style account of balloon "aeronauts" and a number of "creep ers," weird tales of love and madness inspired by Lord Dunsany...