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16 • year writing career he published 21 novels and more than 150 short stories, as well as hundreds of letters to the press, a great deal of nonfiction, and three volumes of poetry. Along the way, he created many striking characters, including two of such vitality that generations of readers have instinctively believed, or wanted to believe, that they were as real as you or I: the consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler and friend Dr. John H. Watson. “A Most Dark and Sinister Business” • The Hound of the Baskervilles left its teeth marks in me and seriously aroused my then still slumbering passion for reading. I was no longer the same ten-year-old when I reached its final pages: “‘I said it in London, Watson, and I say it again now, that never yet have we helped to hunt down a more dangerous man than he who is lying yonder’—he swept his long arm toward the huge mottled expanse of green-splotched bog which stretched away until it merged into the russet slopes of the moor.” I closed the book with a pang of loss. My initial, and surprisingly sensible, impulse was to head immediately for my local branch li- “A Most Dark and Sinister Business” • 17 brary, located a short bike ride away in Lorain Plaza Shopping Center. (It’s a sad reflection of our misplaced civic priorities that that neighborhood cultural center was shuttered during a lean economy and never reopened, its space being taken over by, successively, a Radio Shack outlet , a pizza joint, and a cell phone store.) Only a single book by A. Conan Doyle was listed in the card catalog, but it was the right one: the venerable Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. This time I started with A Study in Scarlet , in which John H. Watson, wounded at the battle of Maiwand, is discharged from the army, returns to London, and there learns of a rather unusual chap looking for someone to share the cost of lodgings. “Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us. “How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment. “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. . . . 18 • Watson’s astonished question—“How on earth did you know that?”—already hints at one of the major themes, and much of the perennial fascination , of the Sherlock Holmes stories. We lesser mortals may see, but the great detective alone observes, reasons, and correctly deduces. “It is my business to know things,” he declares in “The Blanched Soldier.” “That is my trade.” At some point during the two-week check-out period in which The Complete Sherlock Holmes was mine alone, I went back and read Christopher Morley’s introduction, perhaps the most revered of all Sherlockian essays. Here this popular novelist and journalist of the 1930s and ’40s recalls racing home at night from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, pausing for a moment under each streetlight to scan just one more paragraph of some fresh Conan Doyle volume. For Morley, as for me and so many others, the assembled Sherlock Holmes stories were far more than a large book with small type: They were nothing less than “an encyclopedia of romance,” the “triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life.” According to Herbert Greenhough Smith, the longtime editor of the Strand Magazine, Arthur Conan Doyle was simply “the greatest natural- “A Most Dark and Sinister Business” • 19 born storyteller of the age.” Today I might argue that this honor should rightfully be shared with Rudyard Kipling, but Conan Doyle certainly stands unrivaled for crisp narrative economy. He achieves powerful and often highly poetic effects through a first-person prose that is plain, direct, frequently epigrammatic, and mysteriously ingratiating . This last and most important attribute Vladimir Nabokov once called shamanstvo—the enchanter-quality. Start a story by Conan Doyle and you cannot stop reading, whether you are ten or sixty. Just listen for instance to the opening paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia”: To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and...


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