Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sheer Joy of Genre Reading: On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling (2011), by Michael Dirda

The great majority of fictional detectives come, strut for a time upon the bloody stage of crime, and then depart, as popular fancy alights on the doings of others.  How many people today have read a tale of an exploit of Lieutenant Valcour or Ludovic Travers?

the imperishable detective duo
Yet Sherlock Holmes remains imperishable.  Just in the last month or so we have had the appearance of a big-grossing Sherlock Holmes film sequel starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as the Great Man and his perpetually perplexed sidekick, Dr. John Watson; the second season of a highly praised British television series about a present day Holmes and Watson starring a pair of rapidly ascending British actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; a much publicized authorized Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk; and the subject of this review, the ingratiating small volume produced by the distinguished author and book critic Michael Dirda (for more on Dirda, see

Michael Dirda

Dirda's attractive little book (published by Princeton University Press) manages to range far beyond Sherlock Holmes or even Conan Doyle.  Essentially the book is a paean to imaginative literature and the profound impact it has over the span of readers' lives, from childhood into older age.  Dirda himself concisely explains what he's doing in his preface:

"On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling is a book about the pleasures of reading, a celebration of plot and atmosphere, adventure and romance, and an invitation to go beyond the Sherlock Holmes stories to explore a remarkable body of writing."

My favorite part of On Conan Doyle is Dirda's recollection of his discovery of mystery fiction as a child.  Though I'm a generation younger than Dirda, this section of the book carried me back to my own adolescent encounters with genre literature in the 1970s.  The appeal of such graceful and evocative nostalgic prose as Dirda's surely is, like much of Conan Doyle's own writing, timeless.

I sometimes surprise people when I tell them my first experience with reading mystery tales took place at the age of eight during  a summer in the seventies spent in Mexico City with my parents and teenage sister.  At a Mexico City Sanborns department store my mother bought three Agatha Christie paperbacks (at eight pesos apiece I believe): And Then There Were None, Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy) and Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral).

One of the three Christie paperbacks
from Sanborns, Mexico City
Curled up on the sofa in our apartment, by a big window overlooking a busy city street from high above, I read them all, along with some Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines (I particularly remember a story in one of those magazines called "The Machete Murderer" that was illustrated with cartoonish severed limbs--it rather amazes me that only a couple years earlier I was reading the adventures of Sally, Dick and Jane.  "Run, Sally, Run!" takes on a whole new meaning after one has read "The Machete Murderer").

I was immediately hooked by Agatha Christie, and I read her to this day.  Back then, I watched the 1974 film version of Murder on the Orient Express on the big screen, was saddened when Agatha Christie died in 1976 and read Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the "final cases" of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, when they came out in paperback in 1976 and 1977 respectively.

It was only in that latter year, 1977, that I discovered Sherlock Holmes, when at Christmas I received a slipcase set of all the Sherlock Homes novels and stories (I think it was published by Bantam).  They were rapidly and joyfully devoured!  Besides The Hound of the Baskervilles I especially remember reading for the first time, over that Christmas vacation, "The Five Orange Pips," "Silver Blaze," "The Six Napoleons," "The Red-Headed League," and, of course, "The Speckled Band."

Given these strong and to me very pleasant memories of youthful reading, I was fascinated by Dirda's account of his own experiences with fiction, which date back to the 1950s, the great era of pulp paperbacks and E.C. Comics.  Dirda's seminal childhood reading material was somewhat loftier than, say, Vault of Horror, but he still got from it that same delicious frisson of fright:

no one forgets the first encounter with the hound

"The Hound of the Baskervilles...was the first 'grown-up' book I ever read--and it changed my life...Romantic poets regularly sigh over their childhood memories of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.  But what are daisies and rainbows compared to...sleek and shiny paperbacks?...With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen's drugstor, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush.  After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room's brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound--just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows....The Hound of the Baskervilles left its teeth marks in me and seriously aroused my then still slumbering passion for reading.  I was no longer the same ten-year-old when I reached its final pages."

Did it change your life?

Dirda goes on to discuss other amazing genre discoveries he made, after Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle showed him the way:

G. K Chesterton's clerical Father Brown ("each story chronicled a crime utterly beyond human ken")

Sax Rohmer's diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu (Dirda writes that he dare not go back and reread the Fu Manchu tales, "lest I be seriously appalled by my youthful taste")

Howard Haycraft's Boys' Book of Great Detective Stories (where Dirda "first read the stunning Thinking Machine classic, 'The Problem of Cell 13' ")

Ernest Bramah's blind detective, Max Carrados (see 

"The highly scientific Dr. Thorndyke of R. Austin Freeman"

If you're a longtime fan of this amazingly rich period of mystery genre fiction, from the 1890s to World War One and beyond, to the "Golden Age" of the 1920s and 1930s, Dirda's book makes entrancing reading.

But there is more.  Throughout his book Dirda has scattered fascinating observations on the Holmes saga and on Conan Doyle as a man and a writer.  The splendid variety of the author's output, from his detective stories to his supernatural tales to his historical fiction and more, is done justice.  There's also a long section on the Baker Street Irregulars and Dirda's involvement with them that perhaps I'm just not a big enough Holmes fan (fanatic?) to sufficiently appreciate.  But I recommend the book wholeheartedly to all lovers of the great genre literature of yore.


  1. Hah! I can beat that reminiscence. I read Sherlock Holmes in Russian for the first time at the age of 11 on a visit to my grandmother in Moscow. He is hugely popular with Russians. In fact, many moons later, when I was taking individuals or groups round London as an interpreter cum guide, the biggest success was always the Sherlock Holmes pub by Embankment where the famous sitting room is recreated upstairs.

  2. I imagine it's a universal appeal! Was Conan Doyle your first mystery writer, or was it someone else?

  3. Lt Valcour! I'm reading Murder by the Clock by Rufus King right now. Are you surprised?

  4. John,

    you know I'm not! I'd be happy to see a Valcour revival myself. I look forward to your thoughts on the book. Even John Dillinger read Rufus King!

  5. Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming were probably, int hat order, the first 'adult' reading that I did - it's a pleasure just to type the names, drags me right back to the late 70s and early 80s ... The books sounds great Curtis, thanks very much for the heads up as I had not come across it. Sounds fascinating.


  6. Sergio,

    Ah, I can see the influence on you of reading Chandler and Fleming early! I have never gotten into the spy tale much, though I have developed a great appreciation for Chandler's writing (and a fascination with his complicated and prickly personality).

    Oddly, I was never much attracted to the American genre writers in my younger days, though I watched the Jim Hutton/David Wayne Ellery Queen TV series and enjoyed it a lot. After Christie and Conan Doyle, for me it was Sayers and John Dickson Carr, the latter of whose work I went completely gaga over for some time.

  7. You just used those magical three words - John Dickson Carr ...

    I got introduced to Carr in August 1983 and the reason I can be so certain, to the week, is that Mondadori republished THE READER IS WARNED in its 'Classici' series in Italy as part of its fortnightly range which come out in newstands and which are dated (here it is: I still have it and for the next few years I I tried to get my hands on anything I could by him - luckily for me there was that great renaissance of interest in his work at around that time, thanks also to Douglas Greene's efforts.

    For me Carr is the greatest, bar none, of the GAD authors.

  8. Of course Carr was an American, but I always classify him as British, since he lived there for so many years and set so many of his books there. Yes, I was trying to read everything by him too, back in those days when those IPL editions were brand new.

    Though I don't believe he mentions Carr in the Conan Doyle book, Dirda is a fan too and obviously has read Doug's biography of him. Dirda wears his knowledge lightly but he obviously is extremely well-read in genre literature going back 120 years or more.

  9. I liked "The House of Silk" immensely. The plot, the cameos and the vintage climax were the best parts of the book.

    Have you read "Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies. The book is a tribute to Jeremy Brett and the Granada series itself.