Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dirda on Doyle (and Dunsany)

So, quite by chance on Monday* we learned that the author of a new book on Arthur Conan Doyle (called ON CONAN DOYLE) wd be giving a talk or reading Tuesday night up at Elliott Bay Books, one of our favorite (but rarely visited, due to location) Seattle bookstores. We made plans to attend, if all went well, but in the event weren't able to make it -- not surprising, considering the workday schedule, traffic, early darkness, &c. A pity, but so it goes.

Curiously enough, my attention had been drawn to Dirda just a few days before in a post to the MythSoc list by Wendell Wagner, who included the quote:

"What Conan Doyle is to the detective story, Dunsany is to the modern fantasy: the Master"

That's a statement I agree with completely. There were detective stories before Doyle (e.g., Poe's Dupin), and there was fantasy fiction before Dunsany (cf. Wm Morris). But each man remade the genre, so that everyone who came after was influenced by their achievement.** It's rare to come upon a right-minded individual who feels as I do on this point, so I'm naturally am curious to find out more, being both a Dunsany scholar (one of the few people who can claim that, I suspect) and a longtime admirer of the Holmes stories.

I haven't been able to find a copy of Dirda's book yet, but thanks to Google Books I've now discovered that most of his discussion of Lord D. focuses on the Jorkens stories. This is rare; most people who know Dunsany at all know him through his so-so novel THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER; those who really like him know of his early short stories (the ones written between 1905 and 1916), which are superb,*** and perhaps a few of his plays like A NIGHT AT AN INN. But, on further reflection, Dirda's praise of the Jorkens tales makes sense; they're club stories, and probably the most Holmesian of Dunsany's work (in the 22B Baker Street sense, not in the content)**** In this he's in agreement with S. T. Joshi, who also admires the later Dunsany and once chided me for my agreeing with Dunsany himself (and Lovecraft, for that matter) that Dunsany's later work marked a significant falling off. Dunsany is one of those people who kept on writing long after he'd run out of things to say, and his lesser later works damaged his reputation and got in the way of folks rediscovering his earlier masterpieces.

Still, I'm glad to see Dirda give praise where praise is due, and look forward to reading his book about Doyle -- a fascinating, talented, and gullible man who created a character more memorable than himself.

--John R.

*as in I saw part of the Seattle newspaper lying abandoned at a table when I stopped in a coffee shop at Kent Station to have some tea while I waited for Janice to get off work, and glancing through it saw a piece about Dirda's pending presentation.

**one might extend the example to include Wells for science fiction, though there the match is not quite so tight (there's Verne to consider).

***the best body of fantasy short stories in English, by far; perhaps Borges and Kafka are his peers if you go multilingual.

****Dunsany did write some fair detective stories himself, the most famous of which, TWO BOTTLES OF RELISH, Alfred Hitchcock declared the story he'd most wanted to do for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, but been unable to because the mores of the time wdn't have stood for it (e.g., the murderer getting off scot-free, quite aside from other unpleasant details we need not go into).

1 comment:

Magister said...

Dirda wrote the foreword to one of the Jorkens collections published by Night Shade a few years ago.