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On Conan Doyle

Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling

by Michael Dirda

Hardcover, 210 pages, Princeton Univ Pr, List Price: $19.95 |


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On Conan Doyle
Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling
Michael Dirda

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Dirda discusses not only the entire Holmes canon, but also Conan Doyle's tales of terror, science fiction, spiritualist writings and historical romances.

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Excerpt: On Conan Doyle

ON CONAN DOYLE or, The Whole Art of Storytelling


Copyright © 2011 Michael Dirda
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-15135-9


Preface "You Know My Methods, Watson".........................ix"A Hound It Was"..............................................1"Elementary"..................................................9"A Most Dark and Sinister Business"...........................16"The Lost World"..............................................32"Twilight Tales"..............................................50"Steel True, Blade Straight"..................................74"I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere"...............................98"It Is the Unofficial Force"..................................126"I Play the Game for the Game's Own Sake".....................140"A Case for Langdale Pike"....................................149"A Series of Tales"...........................................169"Good Night, Mister Sherlock Holmes"..........................188Appendix "Education Never Ends, Watson".......................203Acknowledgments...............................................207Biographical Note.............................................210

Chapter One

"A Hound It Was"

* Sometime in the mid-1990s I was lucky enough to interview Robert Madle, a dealer in science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines, as well as a member of First Fandom, the now much-diminished group—never large—of those pimply teens who attended the inaugural 1939 World Science Fiction Convention.

"Every so often," Madle told me, "I'll get a call from somebody looking for, say, Astounding from 1934 to 1937, and I immediately know this is a guy in his seventies hoping to relive his youth, who wants to reread the stories of his childhood." When young, these doctors, lawyers, and businessmen had studied with longing the corner drugstore racks gaudy with issues of Weird Tales, Black Mask, The Shadow, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Now retired, these old men—and a few women—yearned to feel again some flicker of youth's incomparable freshness when every magazine and cheap paperback proffered a vision of how exciting life was going to be. And never quite is.

Still, a few books retain more of their magic than others.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), by Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first "grown-up" book I ever read—and it changed my life. Back in the late 1950s my fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month our teacher would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. I remember buying Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red and a thriller called Treasure at First Base, as well as Geoffrey Household's Mystery of the Spanish Cave. (Years later, I would race through Household's famous Rogue Male, about the English hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler and who instead finds himself relentlessly tracked and pursued.) Lying on my bed at home, I lingered for hours over these newsprint catalogs, carefully making my final selections.

I had to. Each month my mother would allow me to purchase no more than four of the twenty-five- and thirty-five-cent paperbacks. Not even constant wheedling and abject supplication could shake her resolve. "What do you think we are, made of money? What's wrong with the library?"

After Mr. Jackson sent in the class's order, several weeks would pass and I would almost, but not quite, forget which books I had ordered. Then in the middle of some dull afternoon, probably given over to the arcane mysteries of addition and subtraction, a teacher's aide would open the classroom door and silently drop off a big, heavily taped parcel. Whispers would ripple up and down the rows and everyone would grow restive, hoping that the goodies would be distributed that very minute. Sometimes we would be made to wait an entire day, especially if the package had been delivered close to the three o'clock bell when school let out.

Romantic poets regularly sigh over their childhood memories of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower. But what are daisies and rainbows compared to four sleek and shiny paperbacks? After more than thirty years as a literary journalist, I have seen and reviewed new books aplenty. Ah, but then, then, at my wooden school desk, etched with generations of student initials, I would methodically appraise each volume's artwork, read and reread its back cover, carefully investigate the delicate line of glue at the top edge of the perfect-bound spines. Afterwards, I would glance around, sometimes with barely suppressed envy, to survey the gleaming treasures on the desks nearby. Certainly no rare first editions have ever been so carefully handled and cherished as those apparently ordinary book-club paperbacks.

To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter's capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles—as if that ominous title alone weren't enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback's cover—depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag—blazed the thrilling words: "What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?" What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my very own copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:

A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

Eager as I was to start immediately on this almost irresistible treat, I staunchly determined to put off reading the book until I could do so under just the right conditions. At the very least, I required a dark and stormy night, and the utter absence of distracting sisters and parents. Finally, there came a Saturday in early November when my mother and father announced that they would be visiting relatives that evening—and "the girls" would be going along. Yes, I might stay at home alone to read. The afternoon soon grew a dull metallic gray, threatening rain.

With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen's drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room's brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other lights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound—just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows.

In the louring darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book's second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. Holmes and Watson have just been told how Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead, apparently running away from the safety of his own house. Their informant Dr. Mortimer pauses, then adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man's or a woman's? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: "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.

To my surprise, I would later discover that my first meeting with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson was hardly distinctive, let alone unique. Conan Doyle's own daughter Jean used to read her father's stories by flashlight in bed. One of the two cousins—probably Frederic Dannay rather than Manfred Lee—who together concocted the Ellery Queen mysteries relates his own version of my story. Suffering from an earache, he was lying in bed when an aunt unexpectedly came to visit and brought along a book from the public library:

It was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I opened the book with no realization that I stood, or rather sat, on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life's work, such as it is, would be born.

My first glance was disheartening. I saw the frontispiece of the Harper edition—a picture of a rather innocuous man in dress coat and striped trousers holding the arm of a young woman in a bridal gown. A love story, I said to myself, for surely this unattractive couple were in a church about to be married.... Only an unknown and unknowable sixth sense prompted me to turn to the table of contents and then the world brightened. The first story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," seemed to hold little red-blooded promise, but the next story was, and always will be, a milestone. A strange rushing thrill challenged the pain in my ear. "The Red-Headed League"! What a combination of simple words to skewer themselves into the brain of a hungry boy! I glanced down quickly, "The Man with the Twisted Lip," "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and I was lost! Ecstatically, everlastingly lost!

I finished The Adventures that night.... As I closed the book, I knew that I had read one of the greatest books ever written. And today I realize with amazement how true and tempered was my twelve-year-old critical sense. For in the mature smugness of my present literary judgment, I still feel unalterably that The Adventures is one of the world's masterworks.

As indeed it is.

In my own case, the romance of that Dartmoor hellhound would lead me to Conan Doyle's other books, to the work of his peers and followers, and eventually to the recognition that "the observance of trifles," as Holmes called his method, lay at the heart of literary criticism. Eventually, too, I would discover a group of friends, from the most varied backgrounds, who shared a passion for what have been called the Sacred Writings: the almost legendary Baker Street Irregulars. Yet little did I then suspect—as the narrators in old-time mysteries are wont to say—that forty years after that rainy night in Lorain, Ohio, I would be proposing a toast to the Hound at a banquet in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle's most thrilling novel. But I get ahead of myself.


* Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859–1930) wasn't knighted in 1902 for creating Sherlock Holmes, though many readers feel he should have been. The literary journalist Christopher Morley, founder of The Baker Street Irregulars, declared that he actually should have been sainted. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle only reluctantly added Sir to his name—for his services and writings during the Boer Wars—because his beloved mother talked him into it. On his books he austerely remained A. Conan Doyle "without," as he said, "any trimmings." Such modesty is characteristic of this altogether remarkable man, one who gave his own stolid John Bull appearance, down to the military mustache, not to his Great Detective but to the loyal Dr. Watson.

Appropriately, Conan Doyle once named "unaffectedness" as his own favorite virtue, then listed "'manliness' as his favorite virtue in another man; 'work' as his favorite occupation; 'time well filled' as his ideal of happiness; 'men who do their duty' as his favorite heroes in real life; and 'affectation and conceit' as his pet aversions." It should thus come as no surprise that Conan Doyle's books are all fairly transparent endorsements of the chivalric ideals of honor, duty, courage, and greatness of heart.

In Javier Maria's charming volume of essays called Written Lives, the Spanish novelist retells a well-known story about the writer and his family. Sir Arthur was traveling by train through South Africa and "one of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: 'Just remember that no woman is ugly.'" While no man is on oath for lapidary inscriptions, nearly every student of Conan Doyle agrees that as man, writer, and citizen he strove to live up to the knightly words etched on his tombstone: "Steel true, blade straight."

Arthur Conan Doyle was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, the third child and elder son of a large Irish family. Art ran in the Doyle blood, for his grandfather John, uncle Richard, and father Charles were all noted Victorian illustrators. But Conan Doyle's immediate family was hardly rich and eventually quite poor due to his father's alcoholism and general fecklessness. (Eventually Charles Doyle was committed to a mental asylum, though arguments persist over whether this was needed or simply convenient.) By his mother's scrimping, young Arthur was nonetheless educated at the prestigious Jesuit school, Stonyhurst College, and eventually attended Edinburgh University, where he trained to become a doctor.

By his early twenties, A. Conan Doyle had begun to publish short stories—many of them tales of mystery and the uncanny—and for several years balanced an averagely successful medical practice with part-time authorship. In 1887, the novella-length A Study in Scarlet introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, though no special acclaim followed. Instead the young writer initially gained attention as a historical novelist, first with Micah Clarke (1889), set in the seventeenth century during the Monmouth Rebellion, and then with The White Company (1891). The latter—about a medieval cohort of English archers—was largely read as a thrilling work of escapism, much to the annoyance of its author, who insisted that it was intended to portray and instill all the most noble British values.

A second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, appeared in 1889; but only in 1891, when short stories about the consulting detective began to be serialized in the Strand Magazine—they were later collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)—did Baker Street mania finally sweep the public. By then Conan Doyle had launched himself as a full-time professional writer. Astonishingly, as early as 1891 he had already written to his mother that he was thinking of "slaying" Holmes because producing mysteries for the detective to solve kept him from working on "better things." In 1893 Conan Doyle duly brought out "The Final Problem," which became the last story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893). In its pages the great detective and his archenemy Professor James Moriarty meet on a mountain pass in Switzerland for "the final discussion of those questions which lie between us." Grappling together, they eventually plummet to their deaths in the swirling waters of the Reichenbach Falls. The whole world mourned.

During the subsequent decade Conan Doyle published a novel or work of nonfiction nearly every year, as well as a series of rousing short stories about a Napoleonic hussar named Etienne Gerard. In 1902, however, he finally relented and brought back Holmes in the phenomenally successful Hound of the Baskervilles, insisting that the novel represented a pre-Reichenbach adventure. By this time Holmes's creator was not just one of the highest paid authors in the world, but also very much a public intellectual. Conan Doyle regularly lent his name and pen to causes in which he believed: divorce law reform, the plight of abused Africans in the Congo, miscarriages of criminal justice, the need for military preparedness, and, eventually, Spiritualism.

Though he might portray his detective as prey to moodiness and an almost decadent languor, the outgoing and athletic Conan Doyle more closely resembled a hearty than an aesthete. While young and poor he worked for several months on an Arctic whaler, and was reportedly offered the chance to become its harpooner. In his middle years, he kept active by hiking, bicycling, riding, golfing, shooting, hunting, and taking part in games of all sorts. He played competitive billiards, enjoyed boxing, and skied regularly, being one of the first to bring the Scandinavian sport to Switzerland. For many years Conan Doyle even belonged to a rather literary cricket team called the Allahakbarries, its name punningly combining the Arabic formula praising God with a nod to the team's captain J. M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan). Conan Doyle was actually good enough as a cricketeer to face England's legendary W. G. Grace, widely regarded as the greatest player in the history of the game.