On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda

Review by Chris Redmond

This truly remarkable little book, published in 2012, belongs in the same league as Vincent Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which first appeared in 1933. It is not — or not only — biography, not scholarship, not reference; it is primarily appreciation. I can imagine no single book more suitable to be handed to a friend who wants to know why readers love Sherlock Holmes, what is most important to appreciate about the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle (both Canonical and otherwise), and, significantly, what it is that Sherlockians do.

And all these things it does in the compass of 202 small pages, plus a very brief bibliography. Michael Dirda, who writes very well indeed, marshals his words efficiently. The volume is published by Princeton University Press as part of its “Writers on Writers” series, meaning that it is an appreciation of ACD (and related subjects) not by a reader-in-the-street, but by a serious writer. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winner, the author of several volumes of essays, and the books columnist for the Washington Post. He knows whereof he speaks, and his subtitle, “The Whole Art of Storytelling,” is entirely justified, not to mention being a pleasant nod to Sherlock Holmes's never-published magnum opus about detection.

Dirda is, however, also a Sherlockian, or at least a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, which presumably counts. Towards the end of the book he tells the story of how that came to be. It is worth noting that he was not a locally active Sherlockian, aspiring to BSI membership and eventually being rewarded with a Shilling. Rather, he was a bookman, a life-long reader of the Canon (and much of the rest of Arthur Conan Doyle's work), who was invited to an Irregular dinner and subsequently to membership, in keeping with the BSI's self-conception as a society of literary folk and kindred spirits.

Earlier sections of the book deal with childhood reading, detective stories in general, Arthur Conan Doyle's oeuvre, Sherlock Holmes, the Sherlockian game, and so on. Dirda is a name-dropper, or would seem so if he were not so infuriatingly well-read: he mentions (always knowledgeably and interestingly) Eliot, Stevenson, Balzac, Wodehouse, Chesterton, Rohmer, Grahame, Bronte (C.), and James (M. R.). He also quotes a stanza of “Aunt Clara.” Towards the end of the book, he handles Paget and Gillette and Rathbone and Brett adroitly. Throughout, he speaks affectionately of Holmes and Watson, not (mostly) as historical people but as characters in important, life-changing literature.

If there is one section of this book less interesting than the rest, it is Dirda's own attempt at Sherlockian fantasy, a pseudo-biography of Langdale Pike (“The Three Gables”), with references to Flashman, Ruritania and Jennie Churchill. Footnotes are pretty much necessary, though not provided, unless of course Dirda is subscribing to the attitude, not unknown in Sherlockian circles, that if you don't get the inside jokes, you don't belong.

But in other parts of On Conan Doyle, he is far from excluding the novice; he explains everything and carries the reader along on the wings of his enthusiasm. Every Sherlockian should own a copy of this book — better yet, two copies, one to read and cherish, the other to give away to a Sherlockian-yet-to-be.