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On Conan Doyle

On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    On Conan Doyle
    Book Description:

    A passionate lifelong fan of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda is a member of The Baker Street Irregulars--the most famous and romantic of all Sherlockian groups. Combining memoir and appreciation,On Conan Doyleis a highly engaging personal introduction to Holmes's creator, as well as a rare insider's account of the curiously delightful activities and playful scholarship of The Baker Street Irregulars.

    Because Arthur Conan Doyle wrote far more than the mysteries involving Holmes, this book also introduces readers to the author's lesser-known but fascinating writings in an astounding range of other genres. A prolific professional writer, Conan Doyle was among the most important Victorian masters of the supernatural short story, an early practitioner of science fiction, a major exponent of historical fiction, a charming essayist and memoirist, and an outspoken public figure who attacked racial injustice in the Congo, campaigned for more liberal divorce laws, and defended wrongly convicted prisoners. He also wrote novels about both domestic life and contemporary events (including one set in the Middle East during an Islamic uprising), as well as a history of World War I, and, in his final years, controversial tracts in defense of spiritualism.

    On Conan Doyledescribes all of these achievements and activities, uniquely combining skillful criticism with the story of Dirda's deep and enduring affection for Conan Doyle and his work. This is a book for everyone who already loves Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the world of 221B Baker Street, or for anyone who would like to know more about them, but it is also a much-needed celebration of Arthur Conan Doyle's genius for every kind of storytelling.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3949-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE ʺYou Know My Methods, Watsonʺ
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. ʺA Hound It Wasʺ
    (pp. 1-8)

    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,Astoundingfrom 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...

  5. ʺElementaryʺ
    (pp. 9-16)

    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...

  6. ʺA Most Dark and Sinister Businessʺ
    (pp. 16-31)

    The Hound of the Baskervillesleft its teeth marks in me and seriously aroused my then still slumbering passion for reading. I was no longer the same ten-year-old when I reached its final pages: “‘I said it in London, Watson, and I say it again now, that never yet have we helped to hunt down a more dangerous man than he who is lying yonder’—he swept his long arm toward the huge mottled expanse of green-splotched bog which stretched away until it merged into the russet slopes of the moor.” I closed the book with a pang of loss....

  7. ʺThe Lost Worldʺ
    (pp. 32-50)

    When I reached the age of 14 or 15 someone casually mentioned that Fyodor Dostoevsky’sCrime and Punishmentwas a murder mystery, so I unearthed a Bantam paperback of the Constance Garnett translation and lived in Raskolnikov’s tormented soul for three glorious days. I particularly admired Dostoevsky’s nightmarish intensity; every word was heavy, every action fraught. That was how I viewed my own adolescent life.

    A liking for hallucinatory Russian fiction doesn’t, however, preclude a lasting passion for comics, and then, as now, I particularly loved the adventures of Uncle Scrooge. More often than not, the world’s richest duck, having...

  8. ʺTwilight Talesʺ
    (pp. 50-74)

    InThe Lost World, Malone’s editor McArdle tells him, “The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere.” But what boy, or girl, reads for anything but mystery, excitement, and romance? Hence my own youthful passion for Alexandre Dumas’sThe Count of Monte Cristoand Rider Haggard’sKing Solomon’s Mines, not to mention my perfect willingness to forgo all homework to finish Jules Verne’sJourney to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, orThe Mysterious Island. From such undisputed classics of adventure I naturally advanced...

  9. ʺSteel True, Blade Straightʺ
    (pp. 74-98)

    From his earliest schooldays Arthur Conan Doyle possessed an almost preternatural gift for storytelling. He once recalled his talent as a youthful talespinner in his essay, “Juvenilia.” On a “wet half-holiday,” he would stand on a desk, with classmates squatting on the floor all around him, and talk himself “husky over the misfortunes of my heroes,” sometimes pausing at the very height of the action until he was bribed to continue with pastries or apples:

    When I had got as far as “With his left hand in her glossy locks, he was waving the bloodstained knife above her head, when—...

  10. ʺI Hear of Sherlock Everywhereʺ
    (pp. 98-126)

    After I returned from the road trip to Mexico during which I’d readThe Poison Belt, summer was virtually over. At the end of August I started my freshman year at nearby Oberlin College, having resolutely decided to put away childish things, like adventure stories and comics and science fiction and Sherlock Holmes. It was time to buckle down. Yet the Great Detective was not so easily forgotten, as Conan Doyle himself quickly realized after he had supposedly sent Holmes and Professor Moriarty tumbling to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls.

    While I resolutely determined to transform myself from a...

  11. ʺIt Is the Unofficial Forceʺ
    (pp. 126-140)

    The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) was established in 1934 by literary journalist Christopher Morley as a sodality devoted to honoring the greatest of all consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. The group takes its name from the ragamuffin street urchins who occasionally assist the detective; as Holmes says, they can “go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone.”

    In particular, the Irregulars and various local “scion societies”—the Copper Beeches of Philadelphia, the Speckled Band of Boston, the Red Circle of Washington, the Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis—have for decades been bringing together enthusiasts to play a peculiar, if addictive...

  12. ʺI Play the Game for the Gameʹs Own Sakeʺ
    (pp. 140-149)

    After being invested in the Irregulars I soon took to answering my phone atBook Worldwith a jaunty “Dirda—the second most dangerous man in Washington.” That gave people pause (and some tried to guess who was the most dangerous). Better still, I was also now eligible to participate in that most exclusive of all local dining sodalities: the Half Pay Club, open only to DC area members of the BSI.

    Like science fiction and fantasy fans, Sherlockians enjoy carousing as often as possible. From the Scowrers and Molly Maguires of San Francisco to the Six Napoleons of Baltimore,...

  13. ʺA Case for Langdale Pikeʺ
    (pp. 149-169)

    After having presented several brief and lighthearted talks at various BSI functions, I finally felt ready to enter the lists of Sherlockian speculation and scholarship. Because of my investiture name, it was probably inevitable that I should explore the background and complex hidden life of gossip columnist Langdale Pike. My paper, originally presented at a University of Minnesota conference (“Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas”), shocked even some of the most weather-beaten Irregulars, though appalled may be the word I really want. I opened, slowly. with an account of my serendipitous discovery of an exceedingly rare volume entitledA Case for...

  14. ʺA Series of Talesʺ
    (pp. 169-188)

    Vincent Starrett once observed that Conan Doyle “wrote scores of novels and short stories as entertaining as any in the saga of Sherlock Holmes” and “it is well to have the fact restated at intervals for the benefit of the young.” Starrett then went on to point to the Professor Challenger adventures, the supernatural tales, and the Brigadier Gerard stories. These are obviously the principal works—of fiction, at least—to read after one has absorbed the irreplaceable canon itself. But what other Conan Doyle books deserve rediscovery?

    First of all, there are Conan Doyle’s historical romances, the novels he...

  15. ʺGood Night, Mister Sherlock Holmesʺ
    (pp. 188-202)

    Long ago, Ward, Lock & Co., in a publishing circular, announcedA Study in Scarletas the lead feature in the 1887Beeton’sChristmas Annual:

    This story will be found remarkable for the skillful presentation of a supremely ingenious detective, whose performances, while based on the most rational principles, outshine any hitherto depicted. . . . The surprises are most cleverly and yet most naturally managed, and at each stage the reader’s attention is kept fascinated and eager for the next event . . . . It is certain to be read, not once, but twice by every reader, and the...

  16. APPENDIX ʺEducation Never Ends, Watsonʺ
    (pp. 203-206)
    (pp. 207-209)
    (pp. 210-210)