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Michael Dirda recommends the best books on

Sherlock Holmes

Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels starring his fictional sleuth. So where to start? The writer and lifelong Sherlockian gives us his personal choice of the best, and tells us more about their creator. He picks the best books about Sherlock Holmes.

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    A Study in Scarlet
    by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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    The Adventure of the Speckled Band
    by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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    The Hound of the Baskervilles
    by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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    The Lost World
    by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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    Arthur Conan Doyle
    by D Stashower & C Foley

Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for The Washington Post. He is the author of several collections of essays as well as the memoir An Open Book. A lifelong Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle fan, he was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars group in 2002. His most recent book is On Conan Doyle

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Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for The Washington Post. He is the author of several collections of essays as well as the memoir An Open Book. A lifelong Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle fan, he was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars group in 2002. His most recent book is On Conan Doyle

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I am intrigued about what goes on in the Baker Street Irregulars group, which you were inducted into in 2002.

The Baker Street Irregulars was founded in the 1930s by three brothers – Christopher Morley, who was a well-known literary journalist of the time, his brother Felix Morley, who was for a while the editor of my newspaper, The Washington Post, and their brother Frank Morley, who worked in publishing and once shared an office at Faber & Faber with that other great Sherlock Holmes fan, TS Eliot.

The Morley kids had grown up reading the Holmes stories and used to tease each other with questions about the most minor details in them. They decided to run a contest in the Saturday Review of Literature for people who had the same kind of passionate interest in 221b Baker Street, and from this contest there emerged a kind of literary society and dining club, which has being going strong for more than 75 years now. In it people play what is called “the Game”, which is founded on the premise that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are actual historical figures and the stories historical records of their exploits. There are discrepancies in “the canon”, there are gaps, there are problems with chronology but Irregular scholarship will find a way to reconcile or make sense of them all.

Dorothy Sayers [the crime writer] was a member of an equivalent group in England – The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. She always insisted “the Game” should be played without cracking a smile. You needed to take it seriously. Sort of. The Baker Street Irregulars continues to flourish, hosting an annual birthday banquet with lots of toasts and talks. Being an invested member of the group is a lot of fun, especially since my fellow Irregulars range from the retired chief technical officer for Apple to judges and lawyers and notable writers such as Neil Gaiman.

Let’s have a look at some of the books you are all such fans of. Your first choice is A Study in Scarlet, which describes how the famous detective pair, Holmes and Watson, met.

If you’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes you really need to start with that book because it introduces this rather mysterious and romantic character. At the beginning, Doctor Watson tries to puzzle out the profession of his strange roommate at 221b Baker Street. He makes lists of what Holmes seems to know a lot about and what he doesn’t seem to know about at all – including the Copernican theory. In short, this is an introduction to a partnership and friendship that will be chronicled over 56 short stories and four novels. I think everyone needs to know the foundation of that relationship.

There have been so many different Sherlock Holmes films, which all depict Watson and Holmes differently. From your readings of the books how would you describe them?

Most of us grew up on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in those old B movies of the 1930s and 40s. Nigel Bruce deliberately portrayed Watson as this bumbling dolt, which is very different from the Watson of the books, who is a soldier, doctor, battle veteran and an authority on “the fair sex”. Happily, the 21st century Sherlock produced by the BBC, with Benedict Cumberbatch as this very Aspergian Holmes and Martin Freeman as this vulnerable and engaging Watson, gives us a more accurate portrait of their relationship.

Watson, we know from the books, marries at least a couple of times and is a much more admirable and humane figure than Holmes. Over time, the stories show how Watson gradually humanises this thinking machine. Agatha Christie – through the mouth of her own detective Hercule Poirot – asserted that Conan Doyle’s greatest creation wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but Doctor Watson.

Do you agree?

Not really, but we do get all our information about Holmes through Watson. He is our representative in this strange household. Just as in vaudeville you need a straight man as well as a comic, so in these wonderful stories Watson has to be Holmes’s straight man. Think of all those little scenes at the beginning of each story when the pair are sitting around the fire and Holmes will suddenly notice that a visitor has left a hat or a cane and will ask Watson to make some deductions about the owner. Watson gets everything wrong and Holmes is then able to wow his friend with astonishing inferences. In one case – they’re studying an old hat – Holmes runs through all these details and finally concludes with a flourish that it is obvious that the man’s wife has ceased to love him! That example comes from the short story “The Blue Carbuncle”, by the way. You need the give and take between the two men to make the stories work. I once read that in vaudeville it was often the straight guy who got paid more than the comic because that’s the tougher job. He has to set up the jokes in just the right way. It is really hard to find a good straight man, and Watson is one of the best.

Good point.

Next up is the short story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which is described as a locked room mystery – what is that?

It is essentially an impossible crime. A victim is found murdered in a locked room and there are no obvious entrances or exits from it. How was the crime committed? How did the murderer escape? Seemingly only supernatural means can explain this impossible situation. But a detective like Sherlock Holmes will figure out how it all really happened.

The Speckled Band is also a kind of gothic story. You have a wonderful villain in Dr Roylott, and you have the isolated home, the mysterious sounds and habits of the household. Most Sherlockians, if they had to pick just one story to represent the canon, would choose this one. For many years, it and The Red-Headed League were the two adventures most often reprinted in school textbooks.

Why?

It has a superbly eerie atmosphere and it gives you all kinds of details about Sherlock Holmes and Watson. As a story, everything in it comes together perfectly.

We can’t discuss Conan Doyle without mentioning his most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first grown-up book I ever read. I can remember buying the novel as part of a school book club and waiting until just the right November evening to read it, one when my sisters and parents would be away. It was literally a dark and stormy night and I pulled all the covers down from my bed and turned off all the lights in the house except one and read the pages absolutely wide-eyed.

When you come to the end of that second chapter, there is this particularly brilliant exchange when Doctor Mortimer describes the death of the latest Baskerville and mentions that there were footprints seen near the body. Holmes turns to Mortimer and says, “A man’s or a woman’s?” and Mortimer delivers the greatest reply in 20th century literature, “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with pleasure and realised that life didn’t get much better than that. After I finished the book, I went to the library and found the complete Sherlock Holmes stories and devoured those.

Eventually I went on to learn that Conan Doyle wasn’t just the creator of Sherlock Holmes but that he was really a multi-talented writer. He also wrote wonderfully evocative ghost stories and historical fiction. He has these rather swashbuckling tall tales told by a Napoleonic cavalryman, Brigadier Gerard. I recommend them.

Still, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the book that persuaded Conan Doyle to bring back Holmes in a serious way. You know that he killed off the detective at the end of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and people thought for several years that their beloved Sherlock was dead after the tumble with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. But eventually Conan Doyle bowed to audience pressure and came out with The Hound of the Baskervilles, though he insisted that this was a pre-Reichenbach adventure. But the book was so fabulously popular – it was the Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter of the day – that ultimately Conan Doyle was offered so much money he couldn’t refuse to produce more Sherlock Holmes stories.

Despite its popularity, is there anything that you don’t like about it?

I would say the only real flaw lies in the middle of the novel, where there is a long period in which Holmes isn’t around and we are only following Doctor Watson’s adventures at Baskerville Hall. But the idea of this hound from hell really gives the story an air of the uncanny that readers love. The curse of the Baskervilles, played out over the generations and still in modern times, is especially brilliant – as is Holmes’s discovery of the truth.

As you mentioned, Conan Doyle wrote other novels that don’t feature Sherlock Holmes. One of them is The Lost World.

One of the aims of my little book On Conan Doyle is to urge people to explore Conan Doyle’s many wonderful non-Sherlockian works. Certainly the one that most people should start with is The Lost World. It introduces Professor George Edward Challenger, a self-important but wonderfully funny and committed scientist who discovers a plateau in a South American jungle where dinosaurs still roam the earth. This is based on some actual historical explorations that were going on at the time. The novel obviously inspired Jurassic Park. It is one of the great classic versions of a lost civilisation.

Challenger is a larger than life, humorous character, and I stress repeatedly that Conan Doyle is often very funny. He himself, unlike many writers, was something of a man of action – a great sportsman who skied, climbed and hiked, and a man who served on a whaler as a ship’s doctor and attended the wounded during the Boer War.

So why do you think that Sherlock Holmes books are so much better known?

Sherlock Holmes represents an intellectual ideal. He’s a man who lives purely by his wit, who kowtows to no one and who disdains the conventions of society that most of us have to observe. When you read these books at 11 or 12, it’s clear that Holmes lives an ideal boy’s life. His best friend is his roommate. He has a mother figure to serve hot meals when he is hungry. He can shoot his gun inside his house, he can be as messy as he cares to be, he gets to wear lots of disguises and he can go out and have great adventures fighting the bad guys. Beyond that, as I said earlier, he is susceptible to all kinds of interpretations. He is the Hamlet of detective fiction.

Finally you have chosen Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley.

Particularly after he became famous, Conan Doyle thought of himself as a public intellectual and he wrote many letters to The Times protesting about atrocities in the Belgian Congo, arguing for divorce law reform, and trying to right the wrongs of people unjustly incarcerated. Arthur and George, Julian Barnes’s novel previous to his Booker Prize winner, was about Arthur Conan Doyle in one of these cases.

Some of that public intellectual side of Conan Doyle comes across in these letters, but they are also highly personal and reveal a really endearingly winning personality. Conan Doyle is funny, witty, concerned with his family life, and he writes very entertainingly about all sorts of subjects. Above all, with its abundant annotation, the book offers a good survey of Conan Doyle’s career and some of his many interests.

How did it help you with your research for your book?

To write my own book I read almost all of Arthur Conan Doyle. There were a few of his books I didn’t get to – some of the spiritualist tracts, for instance, that he wrote in his later years. I drew on the letters, of course, but also his essays and memoirs, the Sherlockian scholarship of the Baker Street Irregulars, various biographies. I naturally touch on the many films and stage plays and pastiches that employ the great detective.

In short, I aimed to distil a lot of information about Conan Doyle’s writings and the full range of Sherlockian activities into an easy-going, highly personal short book. If I have any talent at all as a writer, it lies in conveying real enthusiasm about the authors I love. I certainly hope people enjoy my book for itself but also use it as a means to better appreciate the Sherlock Holmes stories and as a gateway to Conan Doyle’s other work.

December 7, 2012

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