From about 1980 until 2005 when I left the Washington, DC, area, one man more or less controlled my reading. For much of that time Michael Dirda wrote a chatty book column in the Washington Post's book review section and so skilled is he at describing books in must-read terms ("lip-smacking narrative gusto," "rumbustious," "one of the world's masterpieces") that just about every week I put on reserve at the library or bought at least one of the books he mentioned in his column. When his books began to be published it was all over with me and my TBR list.
I knew Dirda was a Sherlock Holmes afficianado but until this new book, On Conan Doyle, came my way a couple of days ago I didn't realize quite how deep into that world he was embedded. He is an invested member of the Baker Street Irregulars, and because that makes him eligible, also a member of the Half-Pay Club of DC. Like so many of us he discovered Sherlock Holmes in his early youth (he was 10, I was 14) and he strings his comments on his growing interest in the author over the years. He discusses Holmes, the many other books Conan Doyle wrote, and eventually the companionship of the BSI.
As is well known, Conan Doyle considered his Sherlock Holmes stories ephemera and put his heart into The White Company, his nonfiction, and the many other genres in which he wrote. Dirda has read them all and finds these other books worthy, most of them, and since this is a book about the author and not the character, he describes the joy he took in reading many of these other books and encourages the reader to try them.
Dirda particularly recommends two novels about a Napoleonic soldier, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and The Adventures of Gerard (1903.) He quotes George MacDonald Fraser: "a splendid catalog of secret missions, escapes, love affairs, duels, disguises, pursuits, triumphs, and occasional disasters," and adds that they "clearly helped inspire Fraser's own brilliant historical novels about Harry Flashman, but unlike that irrepressible Victorian cad and coward, Etienne Gerard is one of the most endearing and honorable figures in all of literature."
In a chapter called "Steel True, Blade Straight," which is carved on Conan Doyle tombstone, Dirda describes the author's passion for honor, justice, and common sense. Conan Doyle "attacks journalistic improprieties, proudly serves as the president of the Divorce Law Reform Union, argues for the adoption of body armor for soldiers, warns against the imminent threat of submarine warfare, advocates life-preserving 'neck-collars' for sailors, envisions the benefits of a Channel tunnel, and promotes the cause of Spiritualism." Dirda finds his science fiction well worth reading as well as his historical novels.
Conan Doyle was of the stoic school: "That is one of the weaknesses of modern life. We complain too much. We are not ashamed of complaining." He met and admired Oscar Wilde and was amused by his brother-in-law, E V Hornung, the creator of Raffles, the gentleman-thief. He almost named his famous character Sherringford Hope and his companion Ormond Sacker.
Some other tidbits from the book: Nero Wolfe is thought by some to be the son of Irene Adler and Myroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, who is also thought by some to have been the original M of British intelligence. He points out that T S Eliot stole almost entire the Musgrave Ritual Q&A for "Murder in the Cathedral": "Who shall have it?" "He who will come," etc, and he modeled Macavity, the Mystery Cat," aka The Hidden Paw, after Professor Moriarty.
There is much, much more in this little book, and I encourage you to mine the rest of the gems yourself.
2012 No 71