The sage of Baker Street
By William Howarth
November 30, 2011
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 reframing 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 mak- ing 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 “creepers,” weird tales of love and madness inspired by Lord Dunsany and Edgar Allan Poe. The final two chapters of On Conan Doyle cover his little-known late writings, factual and fictive, on piracy, sport, marriage, and Islamic terrorism. Dirda makes a strong case for the scope of Doyle’s talents and the reach of their influence, finding, for instance, an exact echo of a Holmes story in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
The quality of this canon is not mixed, Dirda argues, but united by Doyle’s keen desire “to illuminate national traditions.” Doyle did not believe in artistic temperament, or in days off; as exacting in his methods as any scientist, he read copiously, then filed his notes into 60-odd scrapbooks. These he mined for the short stories that he saw as the highest form of narration, each one a journey with a hidden destination. The challenge in writing them, he said, was to be consistently clever, interesting, and intelligible. When fully engaged in a piece of prose, Doyle could produce 10,000 words a day, or about 40 pages of print, and he revised very little.
He loved military memoir, admired courage and modesty, and believed, with all the passion of a lapsed Catholic and loyal Briton, in duty, honor, and nation. Scrupulous in his personal life, he nursed a sickly wife for a decade; after her death he formed a happy second marriage.
The worldwide mania for Holmes made Doyle uneasy, for he feared that writing on crime was “a cheap way to rouse the interest of the reader.” His own best hope of literary immortality lay, he felt, with sober, well-researched historical novels. To win more time for his Napoleonic chronicles, Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes (and the substantial royalties he earned) to the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls with hardly a qualm. But Holmes, like his nemesis Moriarty, was not so easily quashed. Ten years later, Holmes returned from his Great Hiatus and continued to appear in tales and novels until 1927.
On Conan Doyle is also the story of the making of a professional reader, a tale Dirda has told elsewhere, but few readers will object to a reprise, not when rain batters against a child’s windows on a gusty Ohio night in 1960, while on the Yorkshire moors “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.”
In college Dirda began to find Sherlock everywhere: in the imperturbable Mr. Spock aboard the starship Enterprise, in the cool precision of close reading via the New Criticism, in the dialogues of Johnson and Boswell, in the stylistic curveballs of P. G. Wodehouse and Umberto Eco. Lighthearted about his obsession, Dirda is also a true compulsive, unable to resist prowling bookshops or catalogs to add to his collection of Doyleana.
In 2000 he was invited to speak at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Anyone who joins an author society, from Chaucer to Tolkien, knows the feverish rancor that can prevail in such groups. But Dirda finds true fellowship among these bookish rowdies (most Irregulars have been male, with distinguished exceptions such as Dorothy L. Sayers) “devoted to honoring the greatest of all consulting detectives.” Assuming that Holmes actually lived, that Watson wrote his stories, and that Doyle was the literary agent, the Irregulars scour the canon for fresh minutiae to explain.
Fueled by martinis, members furiously annotate Sherlock, docket his traits (does he speak 12 languages, or 14?), and applaud all who demonstrate “the right turn of mind.” Dirda’s chosen nom de Holmes is Langdale Pike, aka the least agreeable gossip columnist in London. Readers immune to such literary fevers, be warned: Dirda offers an 18-page rendition of his maiden address to the Irregulars, a painstaking reconstruction of Pike’s life and dubious times.
The subtitle for this book, “The Whole Art of Storytelling,” echoes Sherlock Holmes’s long- promised, never-written magnum opus, “The Whole Art of Detection.” When we see Holmes and Watson for the last time, they stand together on the cliffs above the English Channel, contemplating three decades of work well done, and Holmes suddenly understands that his quiet friend is “the one fixed point in a changing world.”
In his closing pages Dirda reexamines the Holmes-Watson relationship, and after the charms of previous chapters we are left hoping for an explication of this central riddle. Watson, he argues, is only a subaltern, a full-time audience of one. Yet he senses that Doyle speaks through Watson, who alone can humanize Holmes. So let us, in the words of Ahab to Starbuck, consider the little lower layer.
After the deaths of many loved ones, Conan Doyle turned to Spiritualism. He wanted it to accept the teachings of Jesus and to use science in pursuing ghosts and fairies. Dirda says little about this faith, but it may offer a clue to Doyle’s characters and narrators. If the brilliant Holmes once lived, today he is a ghost, speaking through the medium of Dr. Watson—and Dr. Doyle. This binary self is more intriguing still, the master storyteller who invents and sustains a bravura iconic character. First-person narra- tors are tricky, even deceitful. They use a singular name, the pronoun “I” that is universal, and in memoir they both observe and participate—like Michael Dirda, a professional literary critic who takes us back to his boyhood days, and forward to his revels with the Irregulars.
William Howarth is a former president of the Thoreau Society and former editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. He has taught at Princeton since 1966.