Arthur Conan Doyle wrote more than detective novels

Michael Dirda

WASHINGTON POST – Every January around this time, the Baker Street Irregulars assemble in New York for their annual festivities honouring Sherlock Holmes and his friend and chronicler, Dr John H Watson. At banquets and bibulous soirees, devotees of this Victorian dynamic duo listen to scholarly talks, argue about minutiae and lacunae in the 60 canonical adventures and periodically raise their glasses in elaborate toasts to, among others, the immortal sleuth, his smarter older brother, Mycroft, and the scandalous Irene Adler – “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” It’s all enormous fun.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, could never quite understand why his detective stories excited such hoopla. While grateful for the pots of cash they brought in, he firmly believed that his name would live in literary history because of his two deeply researched historical novels, The White Company (1891) and Sir Nigel (1906).

The first and more famous is available this month in an exemplary annotated edition by Doug Elliott and Roy Pilot, while the second is arguably an even better written, more thrilling swashbuckler.

Set in the 14th Century during what we now call the Hundred Years’ War, both books celebrate the chivalric ideals of honour, courtesy, physical prowess and patriotism.

Conan Doyle himself viewed these courtly and martial virtues as sacrosanct. Once, during a train trip, the world-famous author overheard one of his sons comment on the ugliness of a female passenger.

Before the sentence was finished, the young man received a slap from his father who quietly said, “Just remember that no woman is ugly.” Though Conan Doyle lived by his pen, not by the sword, his gravestone bears a knightly inscription: “Steel true, blade straight.”

The White Company is beautifully written but not in the crisp, modern style of the Holmes stories. Instead, Conan Doyle emphasises leisurely word-painting and antiquated period diction. “Sooth”, for example, means “truth” while “scath” refers to hurt or an injury. He also introduces characters from every class and trade, which allows him to depict the age’s pageantry, poverty and dire inequalities.

In one horror-filled episode, starved peasants turn with murderous rage on their sleek, well-fed oppressors. Above all, Conan Doyle excels in the you-are-there verisimilitude of his battle scenes.

Because Conan Doyle immerses the reader directly into medieval life, The White Company benefits immensely from the new edition’s intelligent annotation (only available from the publisher, Wessex Press).

Marginal notes define the many unfamiliar terms; numerous heraldic insignia are presented in colour and explained, and the book’s real-life characters, such as Nigel’s mentor, Sir John Chandos, are allotted brief biographies. This oversize paperback even reprints NC Wyeth’s now-classic illustrations.

Fifteen years after he brought out The White Company, Conan Doyle decided to tell what we would now call Nigel Loring’s origin story. While adopting the knightly apprenticeship pattern of the earlier novel, Sir Nigel is faster paced, with fewer tableaux-like descriptions and a host of models for its young hero, including wise Chandos, the indomitable French champion Bertrand du Guesclin and the ultra-rational commando Sir Robert Knolles.

The older Loring sometimes resembles the lovable but absurd Don Quixote, but his younger self would make a perfect action-movie hero. Proud but hot-headed, Nigel first defies the rapacious monks who threaten his impoverished grandmother’s property (anticlericalism runs throughout these books), then further shows his mettle by taming a reputably untameable horse, thus acquiring his fearsome battle steed Pommers.

During the wars, Nigel vows to perform three acts of valour to prove himself worthy of the reserved young woman who will later become his formidable wife, Lady Mary. He eventually hunts down a spy known as the Red Ferret, daringly rescues 20 archers held captive by a brutal warlord and, not least, conquers an exceptional warrior at the battle of Poictiers.

Given such a paean to heroism, it does seem fitting that another warrior, General and President Dwight D Eisenhower, was reading Sir Nigel on his deathbed.