Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post book critic Dirda (Classics for Pleasure, 2007, etc.) provides a personal voyage around the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a prodigious variety of lesser-known heroes, worlds and volumes.
Most readers know that Arthur Conan Doyle, who never signed his books “Sir Arthur,” thought so little of his most celebrated hero that he tried to kill him off. But most studies of Doyle place Holmes at the center of Doyle’s universe. It’s fair to say that Dirda’s does as well, but the author tries hard to supplement his emphasis on Holmes with due attention to the adventures of Doyle’s own favorite character, Professor Challenger, his horror and fantasy tales, his broadsides and his letters. Rooting his discussion in his memories of his own introduction to Doyle’s writings, Dirda recalls his investiture in the Baker Street Irregulars and reprints an abridged version of his essay “A Case for Langdale Pike,” his own addition to the delightful faux scholarship of Sherlockiana. Dirda is at his best in his sensitive appreciation of Doyle’s style, direct, fluent, and surprisingly flexible as he moves from genre to genre, and in his account of manly civic inspiration as the value Doyle aimed above all to inculcate in his writing (a value in which he found the Holmes stories lamentably deficient). But many of Dirda’s own adventures among Doyle’s works, beguiling as they are, could well have been condensed to make room for a more detailed review of the three kinds of writing Doyle considered his most significant: his historical romances, his multivolume history of the Boer War and especially his writings on spiritualism, which Dirda short-changes because he feels so uncomfortable with them.
Despite a few shortcomings, an endearing, well-balanced introduction to a writer the Strand Magazine called “the greatest natural storyteller of his age.”