Sunday, 1 January 2012

On Conan Doyle, or The Whole Art of Storytelling, by Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda’s volume on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the third in Princeton University Press’s Writers on Writers series, following monographs on Susan Sontag and Walt Whitman. For such a small book, Dirda covers a surprising amount of ground, combining biographical sketch, literary criticism and fan letter.

He admits he has not read the whole of Conan Doyle, being particularly light on the Spiritualism (hence only one reference to Houdini) and some of the obscurer novels. He does not express an opinion on the histories of the Boer and First World Wars and cannot summon the enthusiasm to tackle The Coming of the Fairies. Even so, he gives a fair idea of how prolific Conan Doyle was, and how much of what he wrote beyond Sherlock Holmes is still worth reading (he even finds merit in the later Spiritualist-inflected Challenger efforts).

That, firm enthusiast as he is, Dirda has not yet ploughed through the entire corpus is unsurprising, given that the bibliography runs to over 700 pages. Conan Doyle’s speed of production was astonishing, for example knocking out four Holmes stories of about 8,000 words each inside a month, on one occasion writing 10,000 words of The Refugees in 24 hours, and on two occasions producing a 40,000 word pamphlet in a week.

Dirda is keen to show just how wide-ranging the oeuvre is. In addition to the Holmes canon he has particular fondness for Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, and he attempts to rehabilitate the historical novels that Conan Doyle prized so highly yet which have generally been dismissed as dull sub-Sir Walter Scott. He draws attention to the range of stories of varying genres, involving boxers, pirates, medical men, the uncanny, even tales of domestic life that stand comparison with Gissing. You have to be either pretty jaded or a literary snob not to find something of interest.

In addition to his writing, Conan Doyle was a man of action, particularly as a sportsman. He worked as a ship’s doctor on a Greenland whaler and on a steamer to West Africa, he volunteered as a surgeon during the Boer War, and unsuccessfully stood for parliament twice as a Liberal Unionist candidate. He campaigned on behalf of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, and for divorce law reform. He expressed his revulsion at the barbarism of King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo in forthright terms (The Crime of the Congo), and warned the British government of the dangers of submarine warfare. Dirda covers all these facets of Conan Doyle’s extraordinary life.

It is easy to assume that Conan Doyle was a somewhat reactionary figure, a Victorian with Victorian views yet Dirda includes Conan Doyle’s admiring account of meeting Henry Highland Garnet, a black abolitionist and the U S Consul to Liberia, as evidence of his decency. He considers Conan Doyle’s life and work to have been much of a piece, in terms of his personal ethics and code of honour, though he goes easy on Conan Doyle’s behaviour towards his first wife, Touie. Conan Doyle made no secret of his friendship with Jean Leckie in front of his family during Touie’s lifetime, something Touie knew all about, but Dirda thinks he managed the business in an honourable manner. I have always thought his behaviour in this instance rather shabby, as did his sister Connie and brother-in-law Ernest Hornung.

Still, even if he did not always manage to uphold the chivalric ideals instilled by his mother in his life, he was more successful in doing so in his work. Dirda gives as an example ‘The Yellow Face’, which features a sympathetic depiction of a mixed-race relationship. However, to show Conan Doyle’s complexity, Dirda highlights the racial stereotyping in The Lost World. Nobody expects a great writer to be straightforward: this is after all someone who can create a character like Holmes with his powers of ‘ratiocination’, a word used repeatedly in the book, but himself display an attitude towards Spiritualism entirely bereft of the great detective’s powers of observation and inference.

Naturally of course Holmes and Watson loom large, and Dirda refers to “the celebration of plot and atmosphere, adventure and romance” in the Holmes stories. Reading Conan Doyle as a youngster really was life-changing as Dirda came to appreciate that “the observance of trifles” was not only at the core of Holmes’s method but also that of literary criticism; Dirda became book columnist for the Washington Post. As a literary critic, a major focus is an analysis of Conan Doyle’s flexible and under-rated prose, and Dirda demonstrates how Conan Doyle could match his style beautifully to his subject matter. He was simply a great storyteller, in Dirda’s words “unrivalled for crisp narrative economy”. Dirda does not forget to bring out the dry sense of humour, which is often overlooked.

There are frequently fascinating insights that make you return to the books with a fresh eye. For example, Dirda was clearly as struck by ‘The Horror of the Heights’ as I was, and discusses the beauty of the language. But he goes beyond the plot and links the story to vision and Conan Doyle’s time as an eye specialist, seeing a connection between the wispy strands the airman encounters in the upper atmosphere and ‘floaters’ in the eye, suggesting that perhaps the airborne shapes that the pilot thinks he sees are in fact hallucinations.

This is not just an impressionistic examination of Conan Doyle but of his influence as well. Dirda surveys the extensive number of writer, such as T S Eliot, P G Wodehouse, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and John le Carré , who have paid homage to Conan Doyle‘s work, and again provides some fascinating insights, not least Eliot’s use of “grimpen” in Four Quartets and sly allusion to the Musgrave Ritual in Murder in the Cathedral. Dirda remembers fondly the earlier Sherlockians who laid the foundation for the Baker Street Irregulars, which he joined in 2002, and shows how infinitely flexible Holmes is, as his current incarnations in print and on film and television attest.

On Conan Doyle is not just about Conan Doyle, it is also about bibliophilia. For Dirda, his love of Conan Doyle is bound (an apt word) up with his love of books more generally. He begins by recounting buying books from a school book club, and coming across The Hound of the Baskervilles for the first time. Many of us have such memories, I’m sure. My parallel one, in a similar kind of family it would seem, is of being allowed to buy a Dragon or an Armada paperback on Saturday morning shopping trips which I would devour the same afternoon (when I wasn‘t picking up more at jumble sales). Ohio and Peckham don’t seem so far apart somehow, at least in the psychology of young boys of that vintage.

We follow Dirda’s developing literary interests, finding Father Brown via a church magazine, comics, the Fu Manchu series, before moving on to staples like Dumas, Verne, Rider Haggard and (a bit of a contrast) Dostoevsky, later Lord Dunsany, then stumbling on The Lost World. As a bibliophile he cannot resist mentioning that he has first editions of all four of Hugh Greene’s Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in dust jackets (I‘m suitably envious), and he recounts some of the impressive treasures owned by Baker Street Irregulars.

For anyone wishing to move beyond Holmes, Dirda is a sound guide in drawing attention to Conan Doyle‘s output. With huge quantities of Holmes yarns available from others – some 7,000, according to Dirda – it is always worth remembering that there is much from the master’s pen waiting to be discovered. He reinforces Conan Doyle’s importance as a literary figure from a period not short of significant authors and novels.

There are a few small criticisms of Dirda’s book. While attractively produced, it is surprising that a press as distinguished as Princeton has skimped on an index, and some references for quotations would have been helpful. It might be argued that Dirda’s love of the Baker Street Irregulars (to whom the book is dedicated) and their ’Game’ is given too much space. A lengthy extract from one of his own pastiches shows that this type of literary exegesis is definitely a minority taste, however much he tries to justify it by drawing a parallel with the French Deconstructionists. The Deconstructionists have decidedly fewer enthusiasts than Conan Doyle for a reason.

On Conan Doyle is a pleasure to read and makes a convincing case for its subject. It makes one wonder why, although there have been scholarly Holmes collections, there is no uniform edition of his complete works (part of the answer may lie in the length of that bibliography, but I am sure It would be a commercially viable proposition). In the meantime, I wonder if anyone is allowed more than one title in the Writers on Writers series. Quoting with approval the Strand’s editor Herbert Greenhough Smith’s verdict that Conan Doyle was “the greatest natural-born storyteller of the age”, Dirda adds that these days he would bracket Conan Doyle with Rudyard Kipling for that honour. It would be interesting to see Dirda on Kipling.