New books about Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes

November 22, 2011

This fall features many new works on Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, including a lost novel by the author himself.

1Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda began a lifelong obsession one dark and stormy night: Hiding under the covers, fueled by Orange Crush and Cracker Jack, the fifth-grader opened “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” he writes in On Conan Doyle (Princeton Univ. Press, $19.95). Dirda intertwines his experiences as a young fan and now a member of the Baker Street Irregulars with an erudite tour of Conan Doyle’s life and other writings. He makes a compelling case for the value of the author’s supernatural, historical and science fiction — if not his treatises on spiritualism, which Conan Doyle valued more than his fiction. “We all make mistakes,” Dirda writes. Conan Doyle himself comes across as a thoroughly decent, loyal man with amazing reserves of energy and a storyteller’s instinct. “Above all, he argues that good writing should follow three rules,” Dirda writes. “ ‘The first requisite is to be intelligible. The second is to be interesting. The third is to be clever.’ ”

2Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were on the front lines of spiritualism, writes Christopher Sandford in Masters of Mystery (Palgrave, $27). But the magician was the one applying cold logic, while the creator of the world’s most famous detective believed wholeheartedly in spirits and fairies. After failed attempts to contact his mother via seances, Houdini became so incensed by charlatans that he offered $10,000 (about $420,000 today) to any medium who could create a physical manifestation that he couldn’t disprove. (No one collected.) “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer,” he said. While originally friends, the two men fell out after Doyle’s wife claimed to channel Houdini’s mother. Since the spirit communicated “in fluent English,” a language his mother had never spoken, Houdini remained unpersuaded.

3In 1883, Conan Doyle mailed his first novel to a publisher — only to have it vanish en route. Rather than solve The Case of the Missing Masterpiece, however, he wrote later, “I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again — in print.” Alas for Conan Doyle. For the first time, the British Library is publishing The Narrative of John Smith ($15), which it acquired in 2004. Unfortunately, it’s not an exciting whodunit, but rather the musings of a middle-age character laid up for a week with gout. Although this early effort might not be as embarrassing as the author feared, it’s for completists only.

4Edgar winners Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger have rounded up authors who know Holmes’s methods and are delighted to apply them in A Study in Sherlock (Bantam; paperback, $15), which includes everything from a graphic novel to a version of “The Greek Interpreter” set in Alaska. S.J. Rozan offers an alternate look at one of Holmes’s cases in “The Men With the Twisted Lips,” while Lee Child sends a modern FBI agent to investigate a crime on Baker Street, and Phillip Margolin and his brother Jerry present the art heist of a Sherlockian’s dreams in “The Adventure of the Purloined Paget.” Neil Gaiman, Alan Bradley, Jacqueline Winspear and Laura Lippman also supply entries. All the writers are fans — and it shows.

5 The Pirate King (Bantam, $25), the 11th entry in Laurie R. King’s series featuring Holmes’s equally intrepid spouse, finds Mary Russell fleeing home. The reason: Her husband’s scheming brother, Mycroft, is coming to visit. His imminent arrival makes doing a favor for Inspector Lestrade appealing to her, even if it involves traveling undercover to Lisbon as a production assistant on “a film about a film about ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ ” As King admits wryly in a foreword, “the credulity of many readers will be stretched to the breaking.” The plot is light on both deduction and Holmes, but it’s pretty charming nonetheless. A quick test to see if it’s for you: Picture Holmes singing, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” Does that make you grin — or cringe?

Zipp reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.

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