Wednesday, October 03, 2012

On Conan Doyle

I'm about midway through Michael Dirda's biography/memoir On Conan Doyle. I'm really enjoying it, and learning some fascinating things I never knew about Doyle (though admittedly, I went to the book not knowing much).

First off, I love how this book feels in my hand. Especially in this age of e-readers, I think it's worthwhile to celebrate the pleasurable physicality of a book. It's small and slender with a lovely dust jacket featuring a black and white photo of Doyle reading in a remarkable looking sitting room with a tiger-skin rug at his feet.. My copy is from the library so my jacket is also covered in smooth plastic; even that seems to add to the pleasure of how easy it is to hold and read this book. It has ragged edges on raw-cut pages that are a perfect shade of cream for the dark text. (I live in hope that the age of e-readers may, among other things, be creating a culture of beautifully made physical books again....)

I like the way Dirda mixes biography and memoir. The reflections on Conan Doyle are biographically weighty, but they're shaped by Dirda's love of reading...not just Conan Doyle, but many other good books. For him, Doyle was his gateway into a lifelong love of reading, and many of the books and authors he's read since have some connection to Doyle, either in style or simply because he tends to compare other writers to Doyle (the first author of his heart -- he fell head over heels for Sherlock at the age of ten).

It's been interesting to realize just how prolific Doyle was and how much he wrote that most of us never hear about, knowing him primarily as the author behind Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, even in his lifetime, that drove Doyle a little crazy. That people only knew him for Sherlock was especially annoying because Doyle didn't consider Sherlock to be his "important" work. Despite not having read the historical novels and non-fiction of his that he did consider important, I found myself disagreeing -- quite vehemently -- with the sharp distinction he made between important and non-important work:

"The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now nobody can possibly be the better -- in the high sense in which I mean it -- for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.  It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader."

To which I found myself saying "no, no!" in passionate (albeit inner) tones. I really struggle with this sense of "high" and "low" work -- it seems to dismiss good storytelling (and the huge human need for it) far too easily, not to mention it disqualifies a whole body of fiction from being "serious" in one fell swoop. I'm not saying I turn to detective fiction primarily for information or training in the virtues, or that it isn't pleasurable and lighter reading than, say, scholarly writing. But a well crafted work of detective fiction can provide both pleasure and tremendous insight into the human condition and into how human beings respond in times of suffering, confusion, and crisis. Compare Doyle's words there to P.D. James, in this recent interview, who provides a helpful insight into how such fiction has changed since the Golden Age:

"I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos... I think there's been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age," she suggests. "What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."

In a less exalted way, James also values detective fiction for the way it can capture the tone and liveliness of an era (and though she uses Sayers as an example, certainly Sherlock Holmes is also proof of this premise):

"A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it's written than a more prestigious literature," James suggests. "If we want to know what it was like – actually like – to work in an office between the wars, we should go to Murder Must Advertise. It's all there: the people and personalities; the inter-departmental rivalry; the great excitement of having a flutter on the Grand National; right down to how much things cost and attitudes to sex and class. I wanted my books to do the same; to be unambiguously set in the present day, so that they give a picture of the life we're living. And if I'm lucky enough to be read in 50 years' time, I hope people will be able to point to them and say: that's what it was like."

Yes and yes. Both of James' insights here point to reasons why I read her books -- and Sayers, Christie, and Crombie, just to mention my favorites. 

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