Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Art of Enthusiasm

Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle might deceptively sound like an academic text of no interest to the casual reader. When I first heard of it, I immediately passed it over—why would I want to listen to an academic tell us just how silly the Sherlock Holmes stories are and how little merit they have as Pure Literature? But, being a foolish mortal, I didn’t notice that the book came with a subtitle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling. It was only after Curt Evans published a review of the book that I decided that, after all, this was a book worth having. And rather than spend my money on a Kindle edition, I gave $10 extra and went for a physical copy of the book.

Dirda’s book won the Edgar Award earlier this year in the “Best Critical/Biographical” category, managing to beat out John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making. Although I was rooting for Curran’s excellent book, if any other nominee had to beat it, I’m glad it was Dirda. On Conan Doyle is not a dry academic text that dissects the stories we all know and love. It’s more of a personal reflection by Dirda on his love for Conan Doyle’s stories.

Really, those are the best parts of the book, where Dirda describes a younger version of himself frantically bicycling over to the store for some candy, then coming back home to feast on the sweets and immerse himself in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Immediately, something clicked for me: this is what I myself once did! When I was younger, living in the city of Windsor, I would bicycle over to the Windsor Public Library’s Central branch about once a week to immerse myself in their massive book collection. (During the week I would make regular stops at the South Walkerville branch, which was next door to a dry cleaners’.) The Central branch also had an enormous selection of tapes (both video and audio) and CDs (and DVDs were starting to make themselves known). From the book section I would emerge with Christie, Sayers, Conan Doyle, and Chesterton—and from the audio section, I would constantly check out tapes of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, even though I’d heard the radio plays dozens of times.

The work of another Holmes enthusiast...
And so instantly I knew that I had found a fellow spirit in Michael Dirda, and on I read. Dirda’s enthusiasm for Conan Doyle is absolutely contagious, but he also covers some of the author’s not-as-famous works: The White Company, the Brigadier Gerard stories, the Professor Challenger tales… all of these are good and fairly well-known but none of them achieved the wild popularity of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Dirda does due respect to these works by treating them as stories, and not as specimens that he must dissect for Posterity.

But I must admit what I most enjoyed about these books were the author’s reminiscences. Not just those about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, but about the other authors he discovered through the years, which brought to mind a similar hunt I made when I was looking for another Sherlock Holmes somewhere. So many suggestions are made for excellent reading, and not just in the mystery field. I’m absolutely puzzled at where I should start. I’m very tempted to buy all three volumes of Lord Dunsany’s The Collected Jorkens, for instance— it turns out that Michael Dirda is just as harmful to my wallet as any mystery blogger.

I also appreciated Dirda’s honesty. He hasn’t read all of Conan Doyle’s stuff and freely admits it instead of pretending he’s the world’s foremost authority. The entire book reads a lot like a conversation with a friend who also loves Conan Doyle: “Have you read these stories yet? What did you think?” And of course, Dirda also talks about his experience with the Baker Street Irregulars, a Holmes-devoted organization that includes people from all walks of life. I could never become a member, since my knowledge of the Canon is far from what would be required, and so I really appreciated these segments as well.

Overall, On Conan Doyle is a delightful book which I heartily recommend. The physical copy is very attractively put together, and although it’s a slim volume it gives plenty of reading pleasure. Readers are advised to place their wallets under lock and key, however… because Dirda will have you reaching for it to order most of the books mentioned therein!


  1. Mike Dirda is a splendid writer and this is a splendid book.

  2. Thanks so much for this. I have requested it from the library.

    1. Nan, I'm glad you liked this. And I hope you enjoy the book! It's a nice, quick read, but it's a pure pleasure.