At the mention of the name Arthur Conan Doyle, isn't it impossible not to think of Sherlock Holmes, clad in frock coat and deerstalker cap?
For Michael Dirda that's a real problem.
Such a powerful link, you see, has caused most of the great author's other books to be overlooked -- and Dirda's brief, elegant reflection "On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling" (Princeton University Press, $19.95) addresses Conan Doyle's other, neglected works.
"Today much of Conan Doyle's substantial oeuvre -- his bibliography runs to more than 700 pages -- suffers readerly neglect because of the widespread misconception that he only rose above the conventions of his time when he wrote about the dynamic duo of Baker Street," laments Dirda, a longtime Washington Post book critic and author of several books.
With thoughtful care, Dirda explains how Conan Doyle "rose above the conventions of his time" in many of his writings. He shines a helpful light on the adventurers Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, while a selection of Conan Doyle's "weird" fiction causes him to declare that those stories "can stand up to the best work of such masters of the uncanny as Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James."
Dirda circles back to Holmes, directing our attention to overlooked aspects of the stories, but he also treats us to a delightful, intimate glimpse of the magical power of books in his own early life. What book lover hasn't had at least one cherished experience of reading? Dirda's own involves his loving preparations, as a youth, to read "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on an appropriately stormy day when his family was out of the house.
Why do so many people have an undying fondness for the gaslit world of Holmes and Dr. Watson? Dirda offers many reasons: One is that Conan Doyle's writing possesses a quality he calls "compulsive readability." Conan Doyle was certainly artistic, but, as Dirda explains, he was less interested in aesthetic perfection than in reaching readers. That imperative guided his writing and is perhaps what resulted in a style that has withstood the passing of time. When you enter a Conan Doyle novel or story, as you would a house, there's a warm glow from a blazing hearth and a comfortable chair waiting for you. It's not a museum.
And there's much of that same feeling in Dirda's inviting book, which demonstrates why for many years Dirda has been an insightful guide to literatures past and present. (Note to director Guy Ritchie: If you're still looking for more Conan Doyle fare after "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" opened this weekend in movie theaters, you might read this book for ideas.)