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Friday, April 24, 2015

A Panoramic View of Conan Doyle

Michael Dirda, in his Edgar-winning 2012 book On Conan Doyle, says that the chapters in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Through the Magic Door “resemble good talk much more than they do explication de texte.” He could have said the same about On Conan Doyle itself.

This is an engaging, chatty romp through the life and literary output of ACD. I found in its pages almost nothing new to me, but much to admire.

Dirda, a Pulizer Prize winning literary journalists and long-time book columnist for The Washington Post – as well as a member of the Baker Street Irregulars! – has the good taste to recognize that ACD was not only a great story teller but a fine writer.

“Conan Doyle certainly stands unrivaled for crisp narrative economy,” he writes. “He achieves powerful and often highly poetic effects through a first-person prose that is plain, direct, frequently epigrammatic, and mysteriously ingratiating.” As an example, Dirda cites the wonderful opening paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia” as an example.

The greatness of Conan Doyle as a writer may seem as obvious to you as it does to me, but I was once on a Bouchercon panel where two American mystery writes advanced a contrary view as if it were a given.

Dirda calls Holmes “the Great Detective, the profession’s Platonic ideal” but lauds Watson as the perfect straight man. He cites Ronald Knox: “Any studies in Sherlock Holmes must be, first and foremost, studies in Dr. Watson.”

But this short book – about the size of A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four – isn’t just about the great duo. It’s presents a panoramic view of Conan Doyle’s work. There is no part of that corpus that Dirda doesn’t admire (science fiction, historical fiction, adventure) and rightly so. On Conan Doyle seems quite a broad topic for so little a book, but it is quite an appropriate one.

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