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.