Conan Doyle Didn’t Write that “Lost” Sherlock Holmes Story
Late last week, the internet was set abuzz with news that a new original short story featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson had been discovered in an attic in Scotland. More exciting than finding short stories in an attic was the fact that its discoverer (Walter Elliot) and the press at large (everyone) reported this was an original written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even yours truly retweeted the news exuberantly and also without actually reading the “new” story itself. However, the next day when I did read it, I felt something was off. Turns out, Neil Gaiman doesn’t think it was authored by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and neither nor does MattriasBoström of the Baker Street Irregulars. Here’s what you need to know about the Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Excited Internet.
The title of the short story alone is pretty unlikely to anyone familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon. The mouthful of “Sherlock Holmes: DISCOVERING THE BORDER BURGHS, and, BY DEDUCTION, the BRIG BAZAAR,” has more of a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ring to it than say, real Sherlock Holmes stories like “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” True, there is a real story Holmes called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” (oh yes, you can have and adventure with a cardboard box) and another story called “The Adventure of The Engineer’s Thumb,” but there’s still something suspicious in the mundane specificity of “Border Burghs/Brig Bazaar.”
Ah ha! But the press (and Walter Elliot) had an explanation for this. The story seemed to have been written for charity, specifically as part of a booklet called The Book O’ The Brig, published in 1903 as a fundraising tool, specifically to help get a bridge rebuilt in the Scottish town of Sellkirk. This booklet was full of a bunch of other short stories and certainly was a decent and honest venture, specifically if the sales of it did help with the rebuilding of a much-needed bridge. Today, finding anything Sherlock Holmes-related from antiquity is fascinating and downright cool, but a cursory examination seems to reveal this story was nothing more than a pastiche of the Holmes character, concocted a lark for this booklet.
Here’s the evidence against this little ditty having been written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. For one thing — as pointed out by Mattrias Boström on his blog I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere — nowhere does the text actually list Conan Doyle as its author. Second, the contents of the Book O’ The Brig do not list Conan Doyle as contributing author. True (asBoström notes) he is listed on a page featuring guest speakers. However,Boström chalks this up to the fact that Conan Doyle was actually hanging around this part of Scotland specifically because he was running for a political office, and the proximity of his name to the Holmes pastiche here is just that: proximity. The Telegraph characterizes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this story about a “his favorite bridge” to save it, but fromBoström’s account, there’s nothing in the Book O’ The Brig to indicate this at all. (We have no idea if Conan Doyle had a favorite bridge!) But really, if Conan Doyle did write this story, why is he not given direct credit? These guys were trying to sell some booklets, remember?
Plus, is it just doesn’t seem like this is legit based on what any fan knows of these stories. For one thing, only three stories in the SACD Holmes canon are narrated by someone other than the first-person accounts of Dr. Watson; “The Adventure of the Blanched Solider,” “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” and “The Adventure of the Marazin Stone.” The first two are told in first-person by Holmes himself, and the latter in the third-person. The only other Holmes-related Doyle-penned thing in the third person is the short-short called “How Watson Learned the Trick.”
But this “new” story begins 100% in the 1st person from the perspective of an unnamed writer who clearly isn’t Dr. Watson. This guy is being assigned a writing job by an editor. The editor asks the writer if they can get something from Sherlock Holmes. The writer says he’ll have to go to London for that. The Editor character tells the writer to make up an interview with Sherlock Holmes. From the story: “…some [people] have been “interviewed” without either knowledge or consent. See that you have a topical article ready for the press for Saturday. Good day’.’…”
Then, we get the “writer” of this story saying this: “I was dismissed and had to find copy by hook or by crook. Well, the Faculty of Imagination might be worth a trial.” Next, this character describes going to a room and thinking about writing a story about Sherlock Holmes and Watson sitting around talking. Get it? This story outright acknowledges that it’s a pastiche right there on the page. Not only is there a lack evidence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write the thing, there’s positive evidence inside the story that he didn’t.
Mattrias Boström says this is obviously a pastiche and “not a particularly good one.” This is not say that it isn’t a legitimate antique booklet with the name Sherlock Holmes in it; it’s just that it was an early example of how much people loved the character, rather than a lost manuscript from Conan Doyle himself. Still, it’s not that big of a tragedy. All that happened is a kind of dull, old-school Sherlock Holmes pastiche emerged and fooled people into thinking it was really written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for a hot second. It could have been worse. What if the story had been good? Imagine our disappointment then!
We all tweet things out all the time and major news organizations can report things as facts, and it may make a piece of fan fiction into the real thing, at least for a time. But, even when we apply a loose Sherlokian investigation, the assertion that this story is a lost Conan Doyle original, doesn’t hold up. Because when we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains — however totally obvious — must be the truth.