lareviewofbooks: why do we love Sherlock Holmes?

LESLIE S. KLINGER


on the cult of Sherlock Holmes.

Illustration by Frederick Dorr Steele for “The Empty House”
Colliers, October 1908

Michael Dirda
On Conan Doyle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling

Princeton University Press, October 2011. 224 pp.

On a recent short plane flight, I read Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling in one sitting. The effect was like having a voluble but very interesting seatmate, one whom you interrupt only rarely with exclamations of agreement and perhaps a short recital of a similar anecdote from your life. I knew that I was expected to review the book, and so I sat back as the plane descended and contemplated my comments.

Best to begin with a disclaimer. I first met Dirda at the “Millennium Dinner” of the Baker Street Irregulars in January 2000. Subsequently, Dirda and I became friends, sharing meals, many conversations, and rambles around Washington and Los Angeles. Dirda has slept in my house and shared my table, and I have never left his company feeling less than a little inebriated, regardless of whether any alcohol was actually consumed. Not only does Dirda love to read and write, he loves to talk; and his talk is mostly about books, reading, and so many things that I cherish. Michael is the quintessential “bookman,” in an age when so few remain. So a chance to listen to him talk about Conan Doyle seemed likely to be an extremely pleasant way to spend my travel time.

I was mightily impressed that Dirda was speaking to the Irregulars. He was, after all, a Pulitzer-winning critic and the book editor of the Washington Post. It quickly became clear that he loved Sherlock Holmes and the entire Holmes canon as much as I did, though for different reasons. At that dinner, I had the honor of giving a toast to Sherlock Holmes, and I was a little nervous about my maiden remarks to the assembled Irregulars. I tried to express why it is that we love Sherlock Holmes. In my comments, I challenged the views of the greatest Sherlockian of all time, Edgar W. Smith, who wrote:
[Holmes] stands before us as a symbol … of all that we are not, but ever would be. We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued … [He] is the personification of something in us that we have lost or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent, and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content.
I, on the other hand, asserted that we revere Holmes for his outsider status, his willingness to do right regardless of the consequences, imagining that we would choose to do the same. It was a very serious toast, free of the lighthearted notes struck by the other speakers:
No, in our age of uncertainty, I think that the element of Holmes’s character which burns like a beacon over the years is his individuality. A contemporary philosopher has declared the “Cowboy Way”: “Do the right thing” is the credo of its followers. And surely Holmes is the embodiment of that idea. Some have said that he is arrogant, cold, ruthless, high-handed, misogynistic, unfeeling, manipulative—and these are difficult charges to deny. I submit, however, that he is not so much those things as he is single-minded: driven in his pursuit of a case, without regard for the conventions of society or even the conventions of law. In our complex, restricted, regulated, rule-bound culture, he is what we dream to be and yet dare not to be: apart from the crowd. Edgar Smith’s vision of Holmes was as hero, in an age that sorely needed heroes. Our age needs less, or perhaps more: Holmes as an individual, who seeks first and foremost to “do the right thing.”
Dirda’s views, evidenced in his toast to The Hound of the Baskervilles, were different: He reveled in the Holmes stories for the sheer joy of reading them and for their place in the canon of Great Literature. In this book, he describes his talk as including “[a]n initial discussion of Watson’s narrative style and the canon’s ‘atmospheric emanations,’” segueing into a reminiscence about his boyhood reading of the stories. Then things took a turn for the unexpected: He announced his theory that Moriarty had survived the confrontation with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, moved to America, and as a cover for his new criminal organization, founded a group devoted to honoring his greatest enemy!

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