On Conan Doyle: A book review by Bob Morris

On Conan DoyleOn Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling
Michael Dirda
Princeton University Press (2012)

Welcome to “a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895”

Years ago while at work on a graduate degree in comparative literature at Yale, I developed a keen interest in the short stories of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and was thus delighted when one of the professors provided me with a heavily annotated bibliography of resources about Chekhov, his works, and his world in Czarist Russia. Soon thereafter I returned home to Chicago for summer vacation. I read as many resources as I could obtain and re-read the short stories with much greater understanding and appreciation, grateful to that benevolent professor. I thought of him again as I worked my way through Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle, one of the volumes in the new “Writers on Writers” series. He shares with me and his other readers a wealth of insights, not only about a specific author and age but also about the joys of reading, in general, and his own in particular.

As Dirda explains, “On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, is a book about the pleasures of reading, a celebration of plot and atmosphere, adventure and romance, and an invitation to go beyond the Sherlock Holmes stories to explore a remarkable body of writing…In general, I reveal as little as possible about the action or plots of Conan Doyle’s various stories and novels. I tell enough to bolster an argument or illustrate some aspect of style, but no more.”

These are among the dozens of observations that caught my eye, provided to suggest the thrust and flavor of Dirda’s narrative:

o “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 should have been sainted.” (Page 9)

o “In the course of our lives, we naturally read Watson’s tales of Holmes’s exploits for myriad reasons: When young, for the expertly paced and thrilling plots; when older, to return to the cozy, gaslit, 1895 when all seemed right with the world, or at least when the world itself still seemed rightable.” (23)

o “From his earliest schooldays Arthur Conan Doyle possessed an almost preternatural gift for storytelling. He once called 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 and apples.” (74)

o Conan Doyle on Oscar Wilde: “He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour, and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself. The effect cannot be reproduced. but I remember how in discussing the wars of the future he said: ‘A chemist on each side will approach the frontier with a bottle’ — his upraised hand and precise face conjuring up a vivid and grotesque picture.” (93)

Note: Dirda includes several dozen of what I characterize as “snapshots” from Conan Doyle’s works, strategically located throughout his own narrative. These brief excerpts sharpen the thrust and enrich the flavor of that narrative.

o “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, hear everyone.'” (126)

o “‘Any studies in Sherlock Holmes,’ Ronald Knox said, ‘must be, first and foremost, studies in Dr. Watson.’ Though he refers to himself as the whetstone against which Holmes sharpens his wits, Watson is hardly the bumbling idiot portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the 1940s movies with Basil Rathbone. He is a former soldier, a man of action, easy to get on with, manly, direct, and utterly dependable.” (190-191)

The very best of creative writers master both the art and the craft of bringing to life characters and events that previously did not exist, possessing what Birda characterizes as an “almost preternatural gift for storytelling.” In some respects a gift, yes, but it also requires highly-developed skills as well as natural talent to make a story compelling and memorable. Arthur Conan Doyle offers an excellent case in point.

When concluding this book, Michael Dirda observes, “As long as readers exist, young people will be discovering Sherlock Holmes and thrilling to the immortal promise: ‘Come Watson, come, the game is afoot!’ As Vincent Starrett long ago declared, these two will always live ‘in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgia country of the mind, where it is always 1895.’” How grateful that I can visit that realm whenever I wish.

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