PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

News

Meet the magician behind Sherlock Holmes

Mary Ann Gwinn
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Michael Dirda says he’s a slow reader. If that’s true, he must be reading when he should be sleeping — besides his weekly books column for The Washington Post, Dirda writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the Barnes&Noble Review.

And in his “spare time,” Dirda, who says he’s not so much a critic as an “old time bookman,” indulges his passion for Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He’s just published “On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling” (Princeton University Press, $19.95) part of the press’s “Writers on Writers” series. It’s a brief (209 pages) but insightful look at a man Dirda says was the greatest storyteller of his age — a medical man, an essayist, a social reformer and author of everything from speculative fiction (“The Lost World”) to historical novels (the Etienne Gerard stories of a Napoleonic soldier).

Dirda answered some questions about his prodigiously talented subject:

Q: You know so much about Arthur Conan Doyle. How did you keep the book to 200 pages?

A: I tried to distill a lot. I wanted to talk about Sherlock Holmes, but to get beyond 221B Baker Street to discover (Conan Doyle’s) other works and his life as a public intellectual. And to talk about the Baker Street Irregulars (the by-invitation-only group of Conan Doyle acolytes Dirda belongs to). It’s a love letter. A fan’s note.

Q: Conan Doyle was a complicated person — an honorable Victorian gentleman, a worldly-wise medical man, a believer in spiritualism. What are some keys to his makeup?

A: He had this idea that being a writer wasn’t enough. He was an outdoorsman and sportsman. He served as a doctor in the Boer War. He was a reformer, pursuing miscarriages of justice. He had this moral standard of masculinity, this Victorian sense of decorum.

Even the Sherlock Holmes stories are moral fictions. Sherlock Holmes always fights on the side of right. He shows incredible disdain for people who abuse their power and position. He’s also become one of our models for the power of intellect.

Q: As a writer, Doyle was so prolific!

A: He was an incredibly fluid writer. He wrote longhand — first-draft material that was beautiful and publishable. (Besides the Sherlock Holmes stories) there are a lot of grittier stories that cover marital problems, racial issues. He was somebody, like John Updike, who could do everything — poetry, essays, memoirs, literary criticism.

Q: How did the medical man and the spiritualist intersect?

A: As a young man, he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research. For a lot of late Victorians who lost their faith, there was always a searching to fill the vacuum.

There was a period in which a lot of scientists and public figures wondered whether a spiritual life continued after death. They investigated haunted houses and mediums in the scientific spirit.

Q: What do you think of the latest versions of Sherlock Holmes, the 21st-century Sherlock Holmes on BBC/PBS portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and the Robert Downey Jr. movies?

A: Holmes is a perennially fascinating character — you can play him all sorts of ways. The Robert Downey version is a cartoon, but Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful — it’s the portrait of a friendship (between Holmes and Dr. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman) that comes through, that’s important. A lot of guys would find his life with Watson a kind of boyhood dream, a clubhouse with Mrs. Hudson cleaning up the mess. Holmes lives precisely the life he has chosen. Most of us have to trim our sails a bit, make adjustments for family and career. Holmes goes his own way, he lives by his wits.

He also has that wonderful theatricality. It comes down to magic — it’s sheer genius. Holmes touches all the right buttons for people.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

20 Songs from the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.