ON A RECENT SHORT PLANE FLIGHT, I read Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling in one sitting. The effect was like having a voluble but very interesting seatmate, one whom you interrupt only rarely with exclamations of agreement and perhaps a short recital of a similar anecdote from your life. I knew that I was expected to review the book, and so I sat back as the plane descended and contemplated my comments.
Best to begin with a disclaimer. I first met Dirda at the “Millennium Dinner” of the Baker Street Irregulars in January 2000. Subsequently, Dirda and I became friends, sharing meals, many conversations, and rambles around Washington and Los Angeles. Dirda has slept in my house and shared my table, and I have never left his company feeling less than a little inebriated, regardless of whether any alcohol was actually consumed. Not only does Dirda love to read and write, he loves to talk; and his talk is mostly about books, reading, and so many things that I cherish. Michael is the quintessential “bookman,” in an age when so few remain. So a chance to listen to him talk about Conan Doyle seemed likely to be an extremely pleasant way to spend my travel time.
I was mightily impressed that Dirda was speaking to the Irregulars. He was, after all, a Pulitzer-winning critic and the book editor of the Washington Post. It quickly became clear that he loved Sherlock Holmes and the entire Holmes canon as much as I did, though for different reasons. At that dinner, I had the honor of giving a toast to Sherlock Holmes, and I was a little nervous about my maiden remarks to the assembled Irregulars. I tried to express why it is that we love Sherlock Holmes. In my comments, I challenged the views of the greatest Sherlockian of all time, Edgar W. Smith, who wrote:
[Holmes] stands before us as a symbol … of all that we are not, but ever would be. We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued … [He] is the personification of something in us that we have lost or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent, and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content.
I, on the other hand, asserted that we revere Holmes for his outsider status, his willingness to do right regardless of the consequences, imagining that we would choose to do the same. It was a very serious toast, free of the lighthearted notes struck by the other speakers:
No, in our age of uncertainty, I think that the element of Holmes’s character which burns like a beacon over the years is his individuality. A contemporary philosopher has declared the “Cowboy Way”: “Do the right thing” is the credo of its followers. And surely Holmes is the embodiment of that idea. Some have said that he is arrogant, cold, ruthless, high-handed, misogynistic, unfeeling, manipulative-and these are difficult charges to deny. I submit, however, that he is not so much those things as he is single-minded: driven in his pursuit of a case, without regard for the conventions of society or even the conventions of law. In our complex, restricted, regulated, rule-bound culture, he is what we dream to be and yet dare not to be: apart from the crowd. Edgar Smith’s vision of Holmes was as hero, in an age that sorely needed heroes. Our age needs less, or perhaps more: Holmes as an individual, who seeks first and foremost to “do the right thing.”
Dirda’s views, evidenced in his toast to The Hound of the Baskervilles, were different: He reveled in the Holmes stories for the sheer joy of reading them and for their place in the canon of Great Literature. In this book, he describes his talk as including “[a]n initial discussion of Watson’s narrative style and the canon’s ‘atmospheric emanations,'” segueing into a reminiscence about his boyhood reading of the stories. Then things took a turn for the unexpected: He announced his theory that Moriarty had survived the confrontation with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, moved to America, and as a cover for his new criminal organization, founded a group devoted to honoring his greatest enemy!
The Irregulars were stunned, as I was a couple years later when Robert Weil, senior editor of the venerable publishing firm of W. W. Norton & Co., called me out of the blue and offered me the task of updating William S. Baring-Gould’s monumental Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Clarkson N. Potter, 1967). Weil had offered the job to his good friend Dirda, and Dirda had declined, saying “Les Klinger was already doing it” (re-annotating the Holmes canon, that is). After picking myself up off the floor — for such a project was my lifelong fantasy — I accepted, and the rest is, well, my history, in any event.
As they were for Michael, books were a central part of my life from an early age. I have no recollection of my father ever reading, and my mother bought those awful Reader’s Digestcondensed books, but I knew that they valued reading above any of my other (limited) accomplishments. I remember my tremendous sense of achievement when the local librarian — a sainted profession, in my estimation — agreed to waive the rule that restricted children to borrowing only five books at a time. I literally carried stacks of books home.
I must confess that these were not high literature. In the early 1950s, I consumed the works of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, A. E. Van Vogt, André Norton, and other science-fiction giants. I bought double-sided Ace paperbacks (two stories for the price of one!) and subscribed to Galaxy magazine. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, largely because the ad on the back of Galaxy featured a diaphanously clad woman who supposedly appeared in Asimov’s End of Eternity (loved the book, missed the diaphanous lady). In short, I read every work of fantasy and science fiction that I could find.
Somewhere in my vacuum-cleaner reading, I must have read a Sherlock Holmes story or a work by Conan Doyle, but I do not recall it, and I recall virtually all of the books I read. It wasn’t until 1968, when I received a gift of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, that I discovered what I was missing. Even then, I admit, though I saw the genius of Conan Doyle — I had, after all, received a B.A. in English — it was the footnotes in that volume that grabbed me. Not only did they reveal the secret existence of the cult of Holmes and Sherlockians, they made it clear that the commentators knew much more about everything than I did. I wanted in. I wanted to know everything about Holmes and Conan Doyle and the Victorian age, just like these amazing people.
It’s obvious to me now that a Dirda-annotated Sherlock Holmes collection would have been totally different from mine. My version indulged the great Sherlockian game: Holmes and his companion John H. Watson, M.D., really lived, the stories are true biographical accounts of their lives, and Conan Doyle merely facilitated Watson’s publication of the stories. To that end, I worried about every little detail of the stories, not just Holmes’s detections, while mostly ignoring the existence of Conan Doyle (and indeed that of every other writer of fiction) except when Holmes or Watson referred to specific books.
I would be the last to claim that Dirda’s annotation wouldn’t be more interesting and important. His love of books shines through every word of On Conan Doyle, and his breadth of knowledge is astonishing. For example, Dirda suggests that while, as Doyle admitted, Holmes was clearly based on both Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, the character also contains equal parts of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohican trackers and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Florizel. I have no doubt that the Dirda annotations of the Holmes stories would have elucidated Conan Doyle’s sources and influences and made valuable comparisons to the works of his contemporaries. They would have been more witty, more literate, more knowing than mine could ever be.
In addition, unlike me, Michael has read and appreciated virtually every work of fiction Conan Doyle wrote, and here he explains why, book by book. Beyond the City, for example, surely one of Doyle’s least memorable works, is commended for its “pervasive humor, brisk narration, and lightness of touch.” Dirda’s devotion to the master is infectious: “Whether you’re looking for mystery or horror, science fiction or romance, social realism or historical fiction, memoir or essay, Arthur Conan Doyle is the writer for you.” (I freely admit that having tried one or two of Conan Doyle’s other books, I found them uninteresting, even in an English-majorly way.)
Though the world may be poorer for his refusal of the annotation project, we can be grateful that in this short book, Michael has shared his immense affection for Sherlock Holmes and his creator. What comes through best in the book is his love for tales of adventure, or, as Vincent Starrett calls them, stories “in which things happen, and then keep on happening.” Dirda also makes a convincing argument that too many readers have let Doyle disappear into his creations. More importantly, it allows those not lucky enough to know Michael Dirda to spend a few hours in his stimulating and fascinating company.