How many of you mystery readers out there were drawn into the delights of crime fiction by reading classic mysteries from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle? I first encountered Holmes in “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful, a collection of thrillers that was at my grandparent’s house. It was a short jump from that story to the two volume Complete Sherlock Holmes published by Doubleday with a red spine with a black title patch and black cloth-bound boards. First published in the 1930s and reprinted in various editions, this was on my parent’s shelves and is now on my own along with the superb and more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (ed. Leslie S. Klinger). It is a common story, and one that award-winning book critic and Holmesian Michael Dirda recounts in his wonderful tribute to all things Sherlockian, On Conan Doyle.
Dirda’s book is both a memoir of the evolution of a mystery reader and an attempt to fill in the picture of Conan Doyle as a writer. While some readers know that Conan Doyle tried unsuccessfully to kill off Holmes fairly early in order to focus more on other writing, I suspect that many people will be as surprised as I was by the breadth of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Essays, science fiction, historical novels, and much more flowed from the pen of Sir Arthur. Much of his work seems dated now, but some of the pieces have aged well. If you enjoy historical fiction set in the 1500s, you should try The White Company. Some of my favorite pieces are the Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, which we have in audiobook form. Fans of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series will find the gallant, though vain, French brigadier an interesting counterpoint to the bluff, bullying Flashy.
Dirda is a superb writer, and whether he is describing his own first encounter with Holmes (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”) or relating tales of the Baker Street Irregulars, of whom Dirda is an invested member, his clear, elegant prose draws you in to the story. It is a trait that Dirda shares with Conan Doyle; both excel at story-telling. That is why, in the end, Conan Doyle remains so popular today. The Holmes tales are great stories that still enchant readers, and these readers continue to enjoy Holmes and Watson. This affection is seen in the myriad contemporary writers who use Holmes and Watson as a jumping off point for their own tales, as well as in the joy that Michael Dirda evinces in his appreciation of Conan Doyle. Any mystery reader will find much to enjoy here. The game’s afoot.
Check the WRL catalog for On Conan Doyle