Holmes Sweet Holmes

On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling (Writers on Writers) BY Michael Dirda. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 224 pages. $19.

The cover of On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling (Writers on Writers)

The most charming thing about perennial Washington Post literary guru Michael Dirda is his near-on phobic aversion to saying anything other than that a book is wonderful and a pleasure (a word for which he has a long-standing affinity, e.g., Reading for Pleasure, Bound to Please, etc.). If we were all to write about reading as Dirda does, if we taught children to write from joy rather than to form arguments, then the world would have many more serious readers and far better books. Yet Dirda’s loving take on the legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle reveals that his strength can also be a shortcoming. It’s a curious case when a reader so enamored of an author’s work begs off exploring why he might find it so pleasing.

The perplexing case—and Dirda’s pleasure—begins with the young Dirda home alone, climbing under his bedcovers to clutch and devour Conan Doyle adventures at the age when boys generally employ their hands and imaginations to more prurient ends. That heart-quickening intensity lingered in the wings for years as Dirda completed a dutiful dissertation on Stendhal and evolved into a “literary journalist.” His Conan Doyle fixation assumed center stage again only when Dirda was invited to wade into the “literary bonhomie” of the Baker Street Irregulars, the almost century-old Conan Doyle fan club named for Sherlock Holmes’s street-urchin army. The resulting book nestles some of Dirda’s own presentations to the group inside a “reader’s memoir” that amounts to a strategically familiar tour of all things “Sherlockiana.”

Maybe it’s unfair to infantilize the Baker Street Irregulars as a fan club, just as it would be highfalutin to call them an admiration society. The group’s devoted members are a thing unto themselves, holding evenings for which the only appropriate word seems to be soiree, and presenting “papers” at “conferences” that are all part of the “game,” an ongoing play at the idea that Holmes was a real person, and that Conan Doyle—in the spirit of a number of Henry James stories—was merely a literary executor of Holmes’s chronicler, Dr. Watson. The blend of fact and fiction in these musings makes them a curious genre of literary response, a mesh of creative writing and something like interpretation. The Irregulars’ irregular writing about reading insists that criticism, too, should offer pleasure.

Which brings us to our tantalizing puzzle: Why does Dirda, in his chronicle of the Irregulars, opt for a strategy likely to strike some as routine, regular? The keen eye spots several clues revealing why this comprehensive account of Sherlockiana is hesitant to participate in it.

First, Dirda insists that Conan Doyle’s prose repays “intensive analysis,” but doesn’t seem to want to engage in any such analysis himself, particularly when the prose exhibits xenophobia or worse (e.g., “ape-men genocides”). Dirda exalts in Conan Doyle’s writing, but often condescends to it as well. Of A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, he writes, “Though a bit corny at the beginning, the writing is generally sprightly, with a good deal of bantering conversation. It would make an excellent play.”

Second, even though Dirda wants to laud “frivolity” here, he’s not particularly willing to entertain Conan Doyle’s own species of fancy. Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm for séances and Spiritualism is merely lamentable (“We all make mistakes”), and Dirda hasn’t “the heart” to even read The Coming of the Fairies, in which Conan Doyle offers a sober argument for the existence of small winged persons. This misfiring of frivolous ends is compounded by Conan Doyle’s own view of the Holmes stories as frivolities—he complained that writing them kept him from working on “better things.”

The real subject at hand then, I guess, is the value of light adventure fiction. Dirda knows such work can become a vehicle for propaganda (in Conan Doyle, the celebration of British manliness and imperial ambition), but he doesn’t have anything to say about his own transition from being a boy excitedly reading in bed to being a man able to perceive disturbing subtexts. Should that not change our assessment of a book? Gender is a similar issue. Conan Doyle wasn’t interested in female readers, and though Dirda occasionally (and somewhat slyly) suggests such readers exist, he leaves the misogyny in the work mostly unremarked upon. One particular monster strikes him as resembling a “supersized vagina dentata”—and he has nothing more to say! We can judge a century-old author by modern values only on the suggestion that he still be read for pleasure.

In other words, one winds up thinking—or at least I did—that Dirda must have been a little disappointed when he bookwormed his way through the Holmes cover of Conan Doyle’s career and munched into the oeuvre’s musty pages. Maybe that’s why his treatment remains “chatty [and] bookman-like,” as Dirda describes his own newspaper column. The ostensible goal here is to renew interest in Conan Doyle, but what Dirda winds up demonstrating is that certain authors are fixed to their periods, even if their Frankenstein creations evolve and live on. Dirda’s aversion to anything but praise means he can’t stomach depicting his disappointment, that his writing about reading can’t be in the service of anything more than book recommendations—and there are many to be found here. But there’s more to Conan Doyle than just that, and Dirda knows it. He tells us “there are mysteries” in this work, but balks at sleuthing into them himself. Why, when sleuthing is such a keen pleasure? I can think of no one from whom I’d like to hear a little more Irregular criticism.

Don’t get me wrong. You will enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it not because it was frivolous, and not because Conan Doyle is wonderful—in fact, it convinced me he’s not—but precisely because Dirda’s restraint triggered in me a vigorous critical spirit. That such a feeling also pleases is elementary.

J. C. Hallman is the author of several books and the editor of a collection of creative criticism, The Story About the Story (2009), from Tin House Books.