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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.

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