Michael Dirda on Conan Doyle

Posted by Helen Friday, March 30, 2012 ,

In a way Michael Dirda's elegant and delightful little tome On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling is misleading. He pretends to be entirely fair in that he warns his readers: this is not a book about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, it is about Conan Doyle as a storyteller; it is about his other books, a little bit about him and a great deal about the post-Doyle Sherlockian developments, notably about the Baker Street Irregulars, a slightly loopy society of eminent lovers of the canon who "play the game" of elucidating gaps and contradictions. Having issued this warning Mr Dirda can sit back and smile as his disappointed readers find that he has, indeed, been completely fair.

This book is not about Sherlock Holmes, or not exactly about him; nor is it exactly about his fascinating creator; it is more about the effect Conan Doyle has had on his readers, on the literary world and on his faithful followers.

Those who call Conan Doyle the greatest story teller are right. His prose, spare in the more modern stories but with mediaeval and eighteenth century overtones in the historical novels thrown enchantment over the reader from the first line. He had a fine sense of pace, an excellent ear for dialogue and a sense of humour that ranged from sly to slapstick, the latter to be found in some of the stories of medical life and in the Professor Challenger ones.

Michael Dirda is no mean stylist himself. He tells of his youthful discovery of the Holmes stories, of his subsequent investigation of other thrillers and detective tales, of his career as a literary journalist and critic, of his further adventures with Holmes and, finally, his involvement with the Baker Street Irregulars. En route he manages to point out that T. S. Eliot's love and use of matters Holmesian go beyond the obviously villaionous Macavity.

His brief analysis of the Holmes canon and its astonishing hold on people's imagination is excellent though he limits himself to the Anglo-Saxon world, specifically Britain and North America. (I do wish, however, that he had not repeated the nonsense about Holmes wearing Inverness capes and deerstalkers in London.)

Dirda is less fond of the rest of Doyle's output though Professor Challenger is obviously a favourite and he is good on the supernatural tales and has some interesting ideas about White Company, which Conan Doyle valued very highly.

The highlight of the book is his account of the Baker Street Irregulars, their book collecting habits and fantastic discussions of likely and unlikely events in the lives of Holmes and Watson as well as their real and fictional contemporaries. Dirda'a own articel about Langdale Pike, a briefly mentioned character in one of the weakest stories of the Casebook, The Three Gables, which includes an hitherto unknown "Case for Langdale Pike" is joyously funny though one needs to read it in full in Canadian Holmes: The Journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto. Yes, I think that is real and there are good reasons why the Holmesians of Toronto should be called The Bootmakers.

On Conan Doyle is not an introduction to the life and works of Sir Arthur or the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels but a delightful long essay for those who already know and love the master and his output but would like to read a highly knowledgeable person's opinions.


  1. Les Blatt Says:
  2. I would agree with you about the sections concerning the Baker Street Irregulars being the most entertaining part of the book. I'm particularly fond of his comments about the "three Ms" and their supposed link to Moriarty. Dirda has a marvelous dry, straight-faced sense of humor.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Mind you, I spent a bit of time trying to work out the three Moriarty brothers. Not sure I know where that comes from. Completely agree about Dirda's sense of humour. I shall now try to find some other books by him.

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