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A Doyle Man

September 21, 2011 | by

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first grown-up book I ever read—and it changed my life. Back in the late 1950s, my fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month our teacher would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. I remember buying Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red and a thriller called Treasure at First Base, as well as Geoffrey Household’s Mystery of the Spanish Cave. Lying on my bed at home, I lingered for hours over these newsprint catalogues, carefully making my final selections.

I had to. Each month my mother would allow me to purchase no more than four of the twenty-five- and thirty-five-cent paperbacks. Not even constant wheedling and abject supplication could shake her resolve. “What do you think we are, made of money? What’s wrong with the library?” 

After Mr. Jackson sent in the class’s order, several weeks would pass and I would almost, but not quite, forget which books I had ordered. Then in the middle of some dull afternoon, probably given over to the arcane mysteries of addition and subtraction, a teacher’s aide would open the classroom door and silently drop off a big, heavily taped parcel. Whispers would ripple up and down the rows, and everyone would grow restive.

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 four sleek and shiny paperbacks? After more than thirty years as a literary journalist, I have seen and reviewed new books aplenty. Ah, but then, then, at my wooden school desk, etched with generations of student initials, I would methodically appraise each volume’s artwork, read and reread its back cover, carefully investigate the delicate line of glue at the top edge of the perfect-bound spines.

To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles—as if that ominous title alone weren’t enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback’s cover—depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag—blazed the thrilling words “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:

A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

The book’s author, Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859–1930), wasn’t knighted in 1902 for creating its protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, though many readers feel he should have been. The literary journalist Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, declared that he actually should have been sainted. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle only reluctantly added Sir to his name—for his services and writings during the Boer Wars—because his beloved mother talked him into it. On his books he austerely remained A. Conan Doyle “without,” as he said, “any trimmings.” Such modesty is characteristic of this altogether remarkable man, one who gave his own stolid John Bull appearance, down to the military mustache, not to his Great Detective, but to the loyal Dr. Watson.

Appropriately, Conan Doyle once named “unaffectedness” as his own favorite virtue, then listed “manliness” as his favorite virtue in another man; “work” as his favorite occupation; “time well filled” as his ideal of happiness; “men who do their duty” as his favorite heroes in real life; and “affectation and conceit” as his pet aversions. It should thus come as no surprise that Conan Doyle’s books are all fairly transparent endorsements of chivalric ideals of honor, duty, courage, and greatness of heart.

In Javier Marías’s charming volume of essays called Written Lives, the Spanish novelist retells a well-known story about the writer and his family. Sir Arthur was traveling by train through South Africa and “one of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: ‘Just remember that no woman is ugly.’ ” While no man is on oath for lapidary inscriptions, nearly every student of Conan Doyle agrees that as man, writer, and citizen he strove to live up to the knightly words etched on his tombstone: “Steel true, blade straight.”

Arthur Conan Doyle was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, the third child and elder son of a large Irish family. Art ran in the Doyle blood, for his grandfather John, uncle Richard, and father Charles were all noted Victorian illustrators. But Conan Doyle’s immediate family was hardly rich and eventually quite poor, due to his father’s alcoholism and general fecklessness. (Eventually Charles Doyle was committed to a mental asylum, though arguments persist over whether this was needed or simply convenient.) By his mother’s scrimping, young Arthur was nonetheless educated at the prestigious Jesuit school Stonyhurst College and eventually attended Edinburgh University, where he trained to become a doctor.

By his early twenties, A. Conan Doyle had begun to publish short stories—many of them tales of mystery and the uncanny—and for several years balanced an averagely successful medical practice with part-time authorship. In 1887, the novella-length A Study in Scarlet introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, though no special acclaim followed. Instead the young writer initially gained attention as a historical novelist, first with Micah Clarke (1889), set in the seventeenth century during the Monmouth Rebellion, and then with The White Company (1891). The latter—about a medieval cohort of English archers—was largely read as a thrilling work of escapism, much to the annoyance of its author, who insisted that it was intended to portray and instill all the most noble British values.

A second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, appeared in 1889, but only in 1891, when short stories about the consulting detective began to be serialized in The Strand Magazine—they were later collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)—did Baker Street mania finally sweep the public. By then Conan Doyle had launched himself as a full-time professional writer. Astonishingly, as early as 1891 he had already written to his mother that he was thinking of “slaying” Holmes because producing mysteries for the detective to solve kept him from working on “better things.” In 1893 Conan Doyle duly brought out “The Final Problem,” which became the last story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893). In its pages the great detective and his archenemy, Professor James Moriarty, meet on a mountain pass in Switzerland for “the final discussion of those questions which lie between us.” Grappling together, they eventually plummet to their deaths in the swirling waters of the Reichenbach Falls. The whole world mourned.

During the subsequent decade, Conan Doyle published a novel or work of nonfiction nearly every year as well as a series of rousing short stories about a Napoleonic hussar named Etienne Gerard. By this time, Holmes’s creator was not just one of the highest-paid authors in the world but also very much a public intellectual. Conan Doyle regularly lent his name and pen to causes in which he believed: divorce-law reform, the plight of abused Africans in the Congo, miscarriages of criminal justice, the need for military preparedness, and, eventually, Spiritualism.

Arthur Conan Doyle died of a heart attack in 1930, at the age of seventy-one. Over the course of a fifty-year writing career, he published twenty-one novels and more than 150 short stories as well as hundreds of letters to the press, a great deal of nonfiction, and three volumes of poetry. Along the way, he created many striking characters, including two of such vitality that generations of readers have instinctively believed, or wanted to believe, that they were as real as you or I.

“When I was starting out as a writer,” P. G. Wodehouse once wrote, “Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am.” So, in fact, was I. When I finally received my own paperback copy of the book, eager as I was to start immediately on this almost irresistible treat, I staunchly determined to put off reading it until I could do so under the right conditions. Finally, there came a Saturday in early November when my mother and father announced that they would be visiting relatives that evening. Yes, I might stay at home alone to read. The afternoon soon grew a dull metallic gray, threatening rain.

With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen’s drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my parents 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, turned off all the other lights in the house, 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.

In the lowering darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book’s second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. Holmes and Watson have just been told how Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead, apparently running away from the safety of his own house. Their informant, Dr. Mortimer, pauses, then adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man’s or a woman’s? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and longtime book columnist for The Washington Post, as well as a member of the Baker Street Irregulars.

Excerpted from On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda, to be published by Princeton University Press in November. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Dirda. Reprinted by permission.

31 COMMENTS

18 Comments

  1. Ana | September 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    It was so great to read this and see that I wasn’t the only one ridiculously excited about book arrivals in elementary school :-)

    In my case, it was the nineties — before Amazon started mailing things internationally, I think. Children’s books in English were a supremely valued commodity in rural Japan.

  2. Robert Wyatt | September 22, 2011 at 5:12 am

    This is one of the loveliest pieces I’ve ever seen on the life of reading.

  3. Mike T | September 30, 2011 at 4:14 am

    This excerpt is very good, but it suggests that after he killed off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle went on to write about other subjects and that was that.

    Actually, the public was so distraught at Holmes’s “death” (and an American publisher offered so much money for the American rights) that Conan Doyle eventually figured out a way to have him not die after all and started writing the Holmes stories again, while continuing to write the historical dramas he preferred. Mr. Dirda knows this of course, and I’m sure it’s covered in the book, but the section excerpted could leave some readers confused.

    Interestingly, this period when Holmes was “dead” was when Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was supposedly written by Dr. Watson about one of Holmes’s earlier cases and was released to huge acclaim, which is one of the things that made Conan Doyle decide to bring Holmes back.

  4. Kumar Gaurav | September 30, 2011 at 5:07 am

    Even In my childhood “The Hound of Baskerville” left quite a impression which I still savior in my heart.By these novels we can judge the true importance of these writer .Sir Doyle in 19th century residing in UK wrote a novel which had impact in 21st century to a boy living in India.Its just remarkable.

  5. witwoud | September 30, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Interesting to read that P.G. Wodehouse was such a fan. I’ve always felt that the Jeeves and Wooster stories are, among other things, a gentle spoof of Conan Doyle. While Sherlock Holmes goes about solving the case of the Solitary Cyclist or the Golden Pince-Nez, only Jeeves could sort out the sinister affair of the eighteenth-century cow-creamer and the small brown leather-covered notebook.

  6. Sharmini | September 30, 2011 at 11:26 am

    I have enjoyed reading Doyle, Christie and Wodehouse since I was a child. I remember the intense pleasure I would feel when, as a ten-year old in the late ’70s, I would browse in happy solitude the bookshelves of the British Embassy library in Beijing. Growing up in Sri Lanka had made me familiar with English literature and these books, along with an introduction to Cherry Ames and the Hardy Boys via the British Embassy in Beijing, gave me such pleasure that even now I retreat often from life in Manhattan into the world of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple through books and often through Masterpiece Mystery.

  7. Terry Fitz | September 30, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    This piece resonates with me, as, I assume, it resonates with all lovers of reading. My mother taught in the school I attended, and received a bounty (paid in books) from Scholastic Book Services based on the number of books her class ordered, so each month I was able to order a certain number of freebies, and then Mom allowed me to buy 4 or 5 additional titles. On shopping trips, my reward for being good at the mall was a stop at Kroch’s & Brentano’s, where I would buy a $1.50 hardback Hardy Boys mystery. Of course I read all the Holmes stories as a lad, and I’ve often thought that between Doyle and Stevenson I learned that I could easily adapt to the English of an earlier time. This realization opened up the worlds of Joseph Conrad, Dickens and many others. I particularly enjoyed the image of young Dirda relishing his solitude almost as much as his Baby Ruth. It could have been me, and if you’re reading this, it probably could have been you.

  8. Michael Stamm | September 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    In my case the books-in-school program was in the early ’60s, and I still have the copy of THE HOUND I bought back then, complete with its splendid cover illustration of the “gigantic hound” in the moonlit distance, half-obscured by mist near the ruins of an ancient priory. It was not my first exposure to Holmes, and Doyle, but it was by all odds the best.

  9. Kit | September 30, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Such a fine piece of writing. When I got to the end and read ‘Michael Dirda’ I let out a laugh! Who else, of course!

  10. Dave | October 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Terry Fitz, you lucky so-and-so! I was an early ’70s recipient of those Scholastic book club treasures: Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, The Secret Hide-Out, The Enormous Egg.

    Michael Dirda has perfectly captured that wonderful age in a young reader’s life, while affirming the ethos of a public school education that made so many average American kids anything but average. Bravo.

  11. Frank Gado | October 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I remember the first word I learned to write and read: me. Proudly, I returned from school and showed my mother the new world I was about to conquer. With a read pencil, I wrote the letters on the brown paper of one of the dress patterns onto which my mother sewed piping to earn money for the family.

    My first grade teacher, Miss Hilke, divided the class into three groups: the sparrows, the bluejays, and the robins. Although no distinctions in ability were announced, we all knew instantly what they were. Despite having just learned English, I was immediately the best reader. No matter the book, I would sneak it home and race to the end of it under the covers with a flashlight to forge my path. Imagine such avidity that could make Dick and Jane exciting! Even so, I was consigned to the bluejay group, as though robinness were beyond my reach. I vowed that, if I became the writer I dreamed of becoming, my villain would be named Hilke and would have read hair.

    Despite the enticements of Dick and Jane and Alice and Jerry, who lived in a fantastic America far beyond the boundaries of my tenement world, fiction could not compete with the allure of all the true facts available to me on the library’s shelves. Until sixth or seventh grade. My mother had decided that my crooked front teeth would bar my chance at ascension in American society, and so scarce household dollars were diverted to Dr. Guttschmidt, who promised a perfect smile in a year or less.

    Perhaps he might have kept his promise if it had not been for Balzac. Sent off to the orthodonist’s office early for my 4:00pm appointment, and resentful of the dentistry periodicals Guttschmidt warehoused in his waiting room, I walked to the town library, only a few doors away. There I found Droll Stories–an intriguing title with suggestions of the comic paragraphs at the bottom of Readers’ Digest pages. What I found intensified my eagerness for the arrival of puberty.

    At almost three-quarters of a century, I still recall the delight of those tales.

    It was better than anything produced by The Hound of the Baskervilles!

  12. Lesley Johnson | October 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Greatly anticipating this new biography of a fascinating author and a giant public figure of his age.
    Please join the cause to preserve the house Conan Doyle designed and lived in during his most productive writing years – the Undershaw Preservation Trust is working hard on the scene to save Undershaw! They have succeeded in having the Planning Council review the owners’ proposals, and in having Heritage Trust review the historical importance of the house. Visit their Facebook page and get in touch to see how you can help! Thanks!

  13. K V K Murthy | October 3, 2011 at 11:28 am

    “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

    The finest, greatest chapter ending ever.

  14. Luke Jenson | October 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    I suddenly have the urge to buy a book or collection of essays/reviews by an author named Michael Dirda.

    Excellent read. Thank you for sharing your story. I remember the scholastic catalogs very well. I mostly bought Calvin & Hobbes, which I guess compared to Dirda’s, goes to show where my literary aspirations were.

  15. Jacquelynn Morris | October 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and all of The Return of Sherlock Holmes while living at Undershaw, his home from 1897 to 1907. This house has been neglected and is in dire need of repair; in addition, it is currently on a development plan to be divided up into three townhomes if we don’t make our voices be heard. Go to http://www.saveundershaw.com for details on saving this literary treasure.

  16. Sharon Lyons Griffin | November 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Okay, I’m officially now in love with Michael Dirda. I was born in 1959 and I live in Dublin, Ireland. I am sitting in front of a pot bellied wood burning stove on a dark November night, with the rain pelting down and the memory, of buying the stash of goodies and the rare time you would have the house to yourself to curl up with a book…..Fantastic. I am not a woman of simple taste’s but I alway’s say, no matter how my circumstances ever turn out, I will always climb into my bed at night, have my bedside lamp, my book, my electric blanket and the sound of the rain on the roof above…….and I will definitely be the happiest person in Ireland.

  17. Prateek Sharma | March 10, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Reading ‘A Study In Scarlet’ was one of the greatest experience i ever had reading a peice of fiction. But it was only after reading ‘The Sign Of Four’ that it came my mind, how painful it is for some of the Americans to go through the first book. Its same as how an Indian feels while concluding the latter. No doubt it can only be a pleasure of an englishmen to hurt the hearts of half a million to create a peice of entertainment.

  18. Sumeet Shetty | October 6, 2013 at 2:16 am

    How delightful to read Michael Dirda write about Arthur Conan Doyle (and Sherlock Holmes)!

    When I was in my teens, I wanted to *be* Sherlock Holmes, not knowing that the job was already taken. By the man in the wonderful illustrations by Sidney Paget, and on television, by Jeremy Brett – the definitive Sherlock Holmes.

    We owe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a huge debt for giving us Sherlock Holmes. Reading the canon of Sherlock Holmes is one of the pleasures of life, one that makes it worth living!

    And isn’t it wonderful to be in the company of P G Wodehouse when we exclaim: I was a Doyle man, and I still am!

13 Pingbacks

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  2. […] At The Paris Review: Michael Dirda reflects on a childhood love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. […]

  3. […] anticipation of its release in November, The Paris Review Blog has posted this wonderful excerpt, A Doyle Man. I’m a fan of Holmes and Watson, to be sure, but what I loved most about the excerpt was […]

  4. […] more from Dirda, click here. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  5. […] more from Dirda, click here. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  6. […] Scholastic Books / Doyle Here's a piece that will be enjoyed by some of y'all, I'm sure. I remember this paperbacks-delivered-at-schools thing from about 1967/8. My goodies from that time included Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles and The Lost World. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2…1/a-doyle-man/ […]

  7. […] Paris Review – A Doyle Man, Michael Dirda. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  8. […] A DOYLE MAN: Michael Dirda, The Paris Review. Appropriately, Conan Doyle once named […]

  9. […] category went to Michael Dirda for his book On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling (click here for excerpts). Dirda, fascinated by Doyle since 5th grade, is the Pulitzer prize-winning book critic at The […]

  10. […] Kindle in the dark, I will save those for later. The “real book” I’m reading is On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda, whom I got to see speak at the National Book Festival last month. I had never […]

  11. […] the Paris Review, an article about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Hound of the Baskervilles .  I was such a Sherlock Holmes fan when I was a teenager.  I couldn’t start reading The […]

  12. […] maneira de traduzir para o português (sugestões?) e pelo que eu encontrei em alguns sites (como esse texto da The Paris Review) tem muito a ver com os valores e princípios de Conan Doyle, que jogava golf e cricket, livrou […]

  13. […] 25 October 2011 In Arthur Conan Doyle, Quotations, Sherlock Holmes My brother pointed me to this article on Victorian author Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. I loved this quotation: […]

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