Michael Dirda, a longtime Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan, ascribes his critical abilities to Sherlock Holmes. He still remembers the spell cast on him when, during the 1950s in elementary school, he discovered The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), with its cover “depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag.” On Conan Doyle pays tribute to the late Victorian author whom he credits with teaching him to observe details. But despite its subtitle, the book says little about the art of telling stories: It focuses more on the incongruities inherent in Arthur Conan Doyle’s personal and professional life.
Part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers Series, this mixes Dirda’s many memories of reading Conan Doyle with a biography of the noveliste, as well as commentary on his life and writing, including a paper Dirda wrote for the Baker Street Irregulars, of which he is a member. There’s also a chapter about Sherlockian societies as well as an appendix listing works by and about Conan Doyle.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was, in his time, considered a major writer; today he holds a minor place in the literary pantheon, where he’s known primarily as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. His other writings are dismissed as period pieces. Dirda believes he deserves better.
Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is extensive: He published 150 short stories, several plays, 3 volumes of poetry, and 21 novels. These include historical fiction, romance, adventure, science fiction, stories of war, sports, horror, and the supernatural. He also published a great deal of nonfiction promoting various deserving causes. Since his Sherlock Holmes stories promote no causes, deserving or otherwise, Conan Doyle considered them mere entertainments, and “a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader.” He believed that literature should inspire people “to become . . . brave, courteous, heroic, trustworthy, stoic, self-controlled, [and] sportsmanlike.”
Dirda acknowledges that people today are leery of these old-fashioned ideals, but says little about the deadening effect of using art to promote them. For better or worse, contemporary readers dislike didacticism in the literary arts. This is, perhaps, the reason why Conan Doyle’s other works are relatively unknown while the Holmes stories are highly regarded. That’s also why Sherlock Holmes has grown to iconic proportions while other Conan Doyle protagonists tend to be ignored.
Born of Irish Catholic parents in Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle came from a family of prominent artists. A first son and favorite child, he was a mama’s boy. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was the mainstay of the family. A gifted storyteller, “The Ma’am” (as he called his mother) inspired Conan Doyle’s interest in writing. He attended a Jesuit school but later rejected Roman Catholicism. Yet he built his stories around the golden rule, especially as seen in the Jesuit ideal of being a man for others.
Conan Doyle studied medicine and became an ophthalmologist; but instead of treating diseases of the eye, he wrote stories. As Dirda notes, he was a fast writer: He wrote the first set of four Sherlock Holmes stories, running about 8,000 words each, in less than a month. He wrote with little revision, steadily producing sentences from morning until night. If he were sustained by a “burning indignation,” as he mentions in an essay, he could produce 40,000 words in a week. (By way of helpful comparison, Dirda says that his book contains about 45,000 words and took much longer than a week to write!)
Conan Doyle’s first story, “The Mystery Of Sasassa Valley” (1879), shows an interest in the supernatural, which stayed with him. After his son died, he attempted to communicate with the deceased and became heavily involved with Spiritualism. Indeed, so taken was Conan Doyle with Spiritualism, especially during his final years, that he willingly sacrificed his literary reputation to promote it.
And yet, of course, today Sherlock Holmes is very much alive, stories about him are immensely popular worldwide, and numerous fan clubs have grown up around the great detective who inspires adaptations in print and film. Michael Dirda, “even in [his] mature smugness,” as he calls it, thinks that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is one of the world’s greatest books and possesses books, tapes, records, CDs, and DVDs of nearly everything that Conan Doyle wrote, as well as a substantial collection of material written about Conan Doyle.
But that’s nothing, Dirda adds; his is merely an enthusiastic reader’s library. His friends in the Baker Street Irregulars have truly eye-popping collections, with one possessing a Conan Doyle desk blotter, someone else having a chip of wood from one of his bookshelves, and another owning Christmas ornaments fashioned for every story in the Holmes canon.
Is this silly? No, Dirda answers, it’s love—and judging from this brief but immensely entertaining book, it’s a love that many readers can understand.
Diane Scharper, professor of English at Towson University, is the author, most recently, of Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.