December 2011

Greer Mansfield


The Game is Afoot: On Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle

The photo on the cover of Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle: or, the Whole Art of Storytelling shows the creator of Holmes and Watson dressed in an elegant dark overcoat, sitting upright in a craftsman-carved wooden chair, enjoying a pipe and reading a manuscript (an early draft of The Hound of the Baskervilles?) in a room full of exotic and lordly trophies. A tiger-skin rug, head still intact, growls at his feet. He could be a member of parliament, or a general just back from India or the Veld.

The man who became a wealthy global celebrity by creating the most famous character in literary history did twice run for parliament as a Liberal Unionist, and at the height of the Boer War he travelled to South Africa to work as a doctor to wounded British soldiers. He even wrote a long defense of Britain’s conduct in that war, insisting that during his time in South Africa he saw no evidence of war crimes. It was for this, rather than for the Sherlock stories, that he was knighted.

He defended British imperialism but wrote fiery letters to The Times castigating Belgian atrocities in the Congo. He campaigned for divorce law reform, was one of the first to understand the new dangers of submarine warfare, and got personally involved in two court cases where he (rightly, it turned out) perceived miscarriages of justice.

Before he became a moderately successful doctor and long before he became a world-famous author, he worked on an Arctic whaling ship. Sailing in icy northern seas probably gave him the atmosphere for what Dirda calls his “ very first masterpiece,” the subtly but powerfully emotional ghost story “The Captain of the Pole Star.” He loved billiards and boxing; he was among the first to bring the Scandinavian sport of skiing to Switzerland; and best of all, he played on a cricket team called the Allahakbarries, the name being a nod to both the Islamic cry of praise and the team’s captain, J.M. Barrie. It’s difficult not to pause and wonder further when one remembers that Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, the writer E.W. Hornung, made his famous “gentleman thief” Raffles a decent cricket player.

One can find these and other surprising facts in Dirda’s book; like any good consulting detective, he manages to dig up all kinds of information and reflect on it sharply and pithily. Dirda has long been a charming and convivial literary essayist, less a critic than someone who loves books and wants to share his enthusiasm (though he possesses fairly staggering knowledge of literature and intellectual history). His taste is catholic: he writes with passion about Isak Dinesen and Isaac Babel, Joseph Roth and Denis Diderot, Colette and Eric Ambler, Murasaki Shikibu and Spinoza, Ezra Pound and Alexander Pope, Sappho and Robert Burton, Arthur Machen and Guy Davenport, Lafcadio Hearn and the Icelandic sagas. His method is self-consciously that of the old-fashioned “bookman” columnist, chronicling his adventures with great writers in plain, unpretentious prose. Dirda’s description of Conan Doyle’s book of literary essays Through the Magic Door could apply just as well to himself: “His pieces -- like the 1930s and '40s book columns of the eminent Sherlockians Vincent Starrett and Christopher Morley -- resemble good talk more than they do explication de texte.”

Dirda spends most of the book on Sherlock Holmes, outlining what makes Watson’s tales so satisfying and so endlessly re-readable. But he also champions Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock writing: his tales of the weird and supernatural (like the aforementioned “Pole Star”), his historical novels, his essays and journalism, and the rambunctious tales of Brigadier Etienne Gerard, a hussar in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Some readers, like Flashman author George Macdonald Fraser, reckon the Gerard stories to be even better than the Holmes stories.

Dirda does a fine job of illuminating how “in one generation -- in effect, during the lifetime of Arthur Conan Doyle -- there appeared most of the pattern-establishing masterpieces of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and adventure.” This 1885-1925 golden age saw the publication of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Dunsany, G.K. Chesterton, John Buchan, H.G Wells, and more. Discussing Conan Doyle’s relation to these great contemporaries, Dirda branches into loving appreciations of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and Dunsany’s Jorkens adventures, and even illustrates how Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights might have influenced Holmes and Watson (read those rollicking tales and ask yourself whether Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine remind you of anyone).

On Conan Doyle also delves into the strange world of Sherlock Holmes “scholarship.” Dirda spends a generous amount of time discussing the inner workings of exclusive Holmes societies like the Baker Street Irregulars (of which he is a member; On Conan Doyle is dedicated to them), sketching some of the wilder obsessions of Sherlock scholars, and evoking the romance of searching for antique and obscure books in dusty bookstores around the world. Book-hunting adventures have led Dirda to the original volumes of Strand Magazine in which Sherlock Holmes first appeared, and he mentions a fellow Irregular who somehow came into possession of T.S. Eliot’s copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories. Eliot revered Holmes, and he once said that his favorite passage of English prose was this exchange from The Valley of Fear:

“Well,” cried Boss McGinty at last, “is he here? Is Birdy Edwards here?”

“Yes,” McMurdo answered slowly. “Birdy Edwards is here. I am Birdy Edwards.”

Oscar Wilde called literary criticism “the only civilized form of autobiography” because it is “the record of one’s own soul” and because it deals with “the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.” In On Conan Doyle, Dirda includes some reminiscences of his first childhood encounter with Holmes and Watson (reading The Hound of the Baskervilles on a dark and stormy night: “it changed my life”) and chronicles the forms his enthusiasm for Holmes has taken over his life. His recollections of adolescent reading and adulthood bibliomania (“My shelves include perhaps a hundred works by or about Conan Doyle... Nothing really exceptional”) aren’t superfluous; rather, they embody his passion for his subject. His book is a vivid sketch rather than an exhaustive biography or critical guide. Above all, it’s a record of love.

Hopefully this book will remind readers that Conan Doyle was, as Dirda writes, “much more than just the literary agent for those denizens of 221B Baker Street.” On Conan Doyle is certainly tantalizing in its descriptions of Sir Arthur’s other stories and novels, but it also inevitably reminds us of the magic of the razor-sharp, eccentric detective and his devoted friend. When winter sets in, the nights grow long, and a yearning for holiday mystery and adventure takes hold, there is nowhere better to turn than 221B Baker Street.  

As Dirda writes:

For we do come back to Baker Street in the end, to 1890s London, to threatening Dartmoor, to a certain dark night at Pondicherry Lodge, to a bucolic countryside that sometimes rivals in sin “the lowest and vilest alleys” of the metropolis…

As long as readers exist, young people will be discovering Sherlock Holmes and thrilling to the immortal promise: “Come Watson, come, the game is afoot!”