"Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing" [BOSC]
[Editor's note: we've covered the lost Sherlock Holmes story previously, in articles written by Mattias Boström and Vincent W. Wright and in an interview with Lyndsay Faye. Mr. Boström returns for another analysis.]
You can stop reading now if you are already 100% sure that the Sherlock Holmes story found in Selkirk is not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It will save you a lot of time, since this blog post is long. Very long.
On the other hand, you will miss some interesting facts about Doyle’s views on Holmes pastiches.
So keep on reading.
The FindRecently an old, anonymous Sherlock Holmes pastiche was found in Scotland. Its title was “Sherlock Holmes.”: Discovering the Border Burghs, and, by Deduction, the Brig Bazaar, and this 3-page story was originally published in a booklet called The Book o’ the Brig, sold in December 1903 during a bazaar in Selkirk to raise money for the restoration of a local bridge. The bazaar went on for three days (Thursday to Saturday) and for each day a new bazaar book was published, and a week later they were all collected and published in a single volume.
Walter Elliot, the 80-year old man who found the Saturday bazaar book in his attic, said to The Telegraph: "The Saturday was opened by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He had written a wee story about Sherlock Holmes and Watson and this was in the book.”
Walter Elliot had no proof for his claim. He said to The Guardian: “It’s unsigned, and I’m not a specialist, but the vocabulary seems pretty close to the way Conan Doyle wrote. I’m fairly sure it was written by him.”
Since Elliot, according to himself, is not a specialist and the vocabulary of the story – according to all Conan Doyle experts in the world – is not even close to Conan Doyle’s way of writing, the news about a lost Conan Doyle story was just a big mistake. Elliot had made the mistake because Conan Doyle’s name actually could be found in the same booklet – not in connection with the story, but on the last page under the headline ”To-Day’s Programme”, where it was stated that ”the famous litterateur” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would open the bazaar.
A Fairy TaleIt was an easy mistake to make, and we should not blame Walter Elliot. He was just very enthusiastic about his find. We could blame the journalists who reported about the find, but we won’t do that either. They just relied on the information that Walter Elliot gave them, without checking with any Conan Doyle experts, and if they had any doubt they hid it well in their articles.
It is such a good fairy tale – about the retired woodcutter who finds a treasure in his attic and with a happy smile tells the world about it. That fairy tale will probably live on forever, because such is the nature of good fairy tales. It has already spread all over the world and been mentioned thousands of times in numerous languages. And this is not necessarily bad – even false news about Sherlock Holmes put the master detective in focus, over and over again.
We will never be able to totally stop the false news. And we will probably never find a comment from Conan Doyle on the story, and the name of the real author will most likely also remain unknown. So what is there to be done? Well, only one thing, and that is to definitely certify that the story is not by Conan Doyle, and by doing so the Sherlockian world can treat it as an anonymous pastiche which is only interesting to discuss and publish in connection with other early pastiches and parodies.
The Early Parodies and PastichesIf Conan Doyle’s name hadn’t been in the bazaar book and if he hadn’t opened the bazaar that day, no one would have come up with the idea that this was a genuine Sherlock Holmes story by him. We would not think so nowadays, and the readers did obviously not think so back then. I will explain why.
Parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes were quite common in those days. Some of them were anonymously published, while others were published with a clever signature or the real name of the author. They could be found in popular magazines, newspapers, books, and even as texts in advertisements. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes was called Sherlock Holmes, and sometimes he had a slightly changed name, often with a humorous touch. More than eighty Sherlock Holmes parodies or pastiches had been published before the Selkirk bazaar, from 1891 until late autumn 1903. The readers and the real author of the pastiche were all used to seeing Sherlock Holmes spoofs in Tit-Bits, Punch or other periodicals. The difference between parody and pastiche wasn’t always very clear, especially since most of the stories were really short, which easily gave them a feeling of parody anyway.
When Conan Doyle Liked the Parodies and PastichesWe don’t know that much about Conan Doyle’s views on these early parodies and pastiches, but we have some examples when he actually commented upon them.
When James M. Barrie anonymously had written the first Sherlock Holmes parody in November 1891, Conan Doyle a month later, after having met Barrie on a dinner, wrote to his mother: “It was Barrie who wrote the skit on Holmes in the Speaker.” No opinion about the story, but he clearly knew about it before the dinner. And Barrie soon became one of his best friends.
In 1893 Barrie also sent a personal, hand-written parody to Conan Doyle, which the latter thought was good enough to publish in full in his autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). Conan Doyle wrote that it was “the best of all the numerous parodies.” Which might indicate that Conan Doyle had read at least some of them.
Before that, in December 1892, the local Lancashire newspaper Burnley Express published a short story called “The Man Who ‘Bested’ Sherlock Holmes”, written by Joseph Baron, a local author and journalist. The newspaper, or Baron himself, had sent the story to Conan Doyle before publication, and in Conan Doyle’s reply he described the story as “emphatically good.”
When the American author John Kendrick Bangs wrote his novel The Pursuit of the House-Boat in 1897, he made Sherlock Holmes – now dead after Reichenbach and travelling on the river Styx – one of the main characters. The book was dedicated “To A. Conan Doyle, Esq. With the author’s sincerest regards and thanks for the untimely demise of his great detective which made these things possible.” And Conan Doyle wrote back to Bangs, who he had met on his American tour in 1894: “How very good of you to inscribe your most amusing and original book to me! I begin to have hopes of immortality now that I have got onto your fly-leaf.”
When Conan Doyle Got UpsetIt wasn’t until later that Conan Doyle changed his opinion of other authors writing about Sherlock Holmes. In 1909 he protested against a German publisher who during the years 1907–1911 published 230 booklets with quite terrible Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in which Holmes was changed into an action hero. Many of these booklets were also translated and published in a number of other European countries.
When someone sent a Danish one to Conan Doyle he wrote to his literary agent A. P. Watt: “It is entirely a fake, just as a Spanish one was. I should dearly like to prosecute these infernal villains.” He also wrote: "These things cover Europe and entirely elbow out the real S.H. stories.” He didn’t prosecute, but he published a letter in Danish newspapers:
"Sir! Would you have the great kindness to state that I have no connection with the cheap illustrated stories about Sherlock Holmes which are published in Denmark and other countries. I leave it to your readers how far it is just to steal the name of a character in such a fashion. Yours faithfully, Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Parodies and pastiches had never been a problem before, but now it actually threatened his own sales abroad. And he didn’t want others to make money on his creation – Conan Doyle did not give Maurice Leblanc permission to use the name Sherlock Holmes in the Arsène Lupin stories (so Leblanc changed it to Herlock Sholmes).
There was also another reason why he changed his opinion. When Conan Doyle was writing the very last Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place" in 1927, he wrote to Herbert Greenhough Smith at The Strand Magazine:
“… I cannot hide from myself that the public has lost the sense of novelty with Holmes and his methods. This has been helped by the repeated Parodies. Therefore even if I could keep him on the same level I can’t expect, do what I will, to produce the same effect.”
The First Evidence That Conan Doyle Actually Wrote the StoryThe conclusion of all of this is that Conan Doyle rarely mentioned the parodies and pastiches, and he had for a long time not much against them, as long as they didn’t threaten the reputation and sales of his own creation. When he arrived in Selkirk on December 12, 1903, and noticed that there was a short text about Sherlock Holmes in the bazaar book he could hardly have been surprised, maybe he just felt honoured by this welcoming gesture.
There is a reason why I have written at such length about the Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches, and about Conan Doyle’s views. Because this could have been the first evidence that Conan Doyle actually wrote the story. Without our knowledge about the early parodies and pastiches, and Conan Doyle’s views upon them, it would seem strange to publish another author’s text about Sherlock Holmes in a booklet that Conan Doyle would see. But with our knowledge this is not strange at all. Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches were common and Conan Doyle didn’t protest against them, at least not as early as 1903.
The Second Evidence That Conan Doyle Actually Wrote the StoryAfter the news of Walter Elliot’s discovery, the media reported on another copy of the Saturday bazaar book. Another Selkirk citizen owns this copy, and it is signed by Conan Doyle himself! This absolutely looks like evidence that Conan Doyle actually wrote the Sherlock Holmes story in the booklet. Why would he sign a story that isn’t his own?
First of all, he didn’t sign the story – he signed the booklet. It was most likely signed directly after his opening speech on the Saturday. The local newspaper The Southern Reporter reported on December 17, 1903 about the opening speech: “Sir Arthur afterwards appended his signature to a number of copies of the bazaar book, and these sold readily at an increased price."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the most famous authors in Great Britain, and he was the celebrity who opened the bazaar that day. Nothing is strange about him signing copies of the bazaar book, in which his name also was printed in the programme on the last page.
It is by no means evidence that he had written the text about Sherlock Holmes. If Holmes pastiches and parodies had been rare, and if Conan Doyle had been totally opposed to them, it could have been evidence that he wrote the Selkirk story. But now it isn’t. The signed copy of the booklet is just a signed copy of the booklet.
There Is No More EvidenceThese two things – that Conan Doyle visited Selkirk the same day the booklet was published, and that he signed copies of it – are the only main pieces of evidence in favor of Conan Doyle being the real author. I have explained why we can’t rely upon these things as evidence. And this means that we are left with no evidence at all pointing to Conan Doyle as the author of the story.
However, there will still be people wishing it to be true that Conan Doyle wrote it. So to really make sure that there is no doubt that Conan Doyle didn’t write the story, please imagine what it would have been like if he actually did write it. If you recognize the following text, it is because you have read a similar one among my own comments to my previous blog post. I felt however that it would fit nicely also here. And if you want the full background to the facts below, please read my previous blog post first.
Another Fairy Tale: How It All Happened When Conan Doyle Wrote the Selkirk Story[If you for some reason start reading this blog post here, please understand that in the following text I have made use of the Faculty of Imagination.]
The editor of the Bazaar Book asked Conan Doyle to write a story for them, probably in mid November when Conan Doyle had been invited to be the Unionist candidate for the Border Burghs. It was maybe around then that he wrote to his mother that "I intend to go up to Hawick for a fortnight early in December and have a bit of a campaign".
Conan Doyle accepted to contribute something to the Bazaar Book. He then wrote three "Notable Interviews" in which he was using the perspective of being a person in the staff working with the Bazaar Book, pretending to interview – through imagination – Sir Walter Scott, Mungo Park, and Sherlock Holmes.
Or if you prefer that Conan Doyle only wrote the Sherlock Holmes story: the editor gave Conan Doyle exact instructions about the two previous Notable Interviews, so Conan Doyle could mention them at the beginning of the story, and also the fact that this was to be published in the Saturday part of the Bazaar Book.
Or if you prefer that Conan Doyle didn't write the beginning of the story: the editor, or someone else, felt that it wasn't enough to get a story by Conan Doyle, so they needed to edit it and add text to make it fit with the format of two other texts that someone else had written.
In the Sherlock Holmes part of the story, which Conan Doyle then absolutely must have written, he places the detective at Sloan Street instead of Baker Street for no obvious reason at all, and he also doesn't write from the perspective of Watson. Conan Doyle had been occupied with writing at least nine of the short stories for The Return of Sherlock Holmes during the last months, so his head was full of Sherlock Holmes and the special literary style that he used in these stories. But instead of using that style that he knew so well he chose to write something completely different here – not because he was lazy or was in a rush, but because it would be a bigger challenge and take him more time to completely reinvent his style instead of just writing a little, simple scene with his normal language.
The idea of changing Baker Street to Sloan Street was one of those things that were more complicated to come up with than just sticking to Baker Street. He also constructed Sherlock Holmes’ deductions so that they were mainly based on very local Borders knowledge, things that Conan Doyle would have needed to research – probably through correspondence – to find out about, since he had no actual local knowledge himself, which he later indicated in his opening speech.
Then the editor put the story into the Bazaar Book. He had asked Conan Doyle to write the story, but he didn't want the readers to know that Conan Doyle had written it, so he omitted the name of the author. The editor didn't think that the Bazaar Book would sell more if Conan Doyle's name was mentioned as the author – and this was at the same time as The Strand Magazine had just started to publish new Sherlock Holmes stories, and the detective was more popular than ever.
Or if you prefer: Conan Doyle had asked the editor not to mention his name as author of the story, maybe because he felt that it wasn't a good story. In that way the readers would believe – thanks to the special format of the story – that it was one of the local literary talents that had written it. Anonymously published stories (mostly parodies) about Sherlock Holmes were, as we know, quite common around the turn of the century.
Then the Bazaar Book was published. The editor had managed to keep it a secret that Conan Doyle – one of the most famous authors in Great Britain – had written the "Notable Interview" about Sherlock Holmes (or maybe all of the three Notable Interviews). Even the local newspaper thought it was written by one of the local literary men. And when the publisher made an advertisement for the Bazaar Book they had no interest in showing that Conan Doyle – one of the most famous authors in Great Britain – had written one (or even three) of the texts.
The money they raised by selling the book would help the town Selkirk building a new bridge. Conan Doyle had previously been generous enough to donate to the fund all what he earned during the recital a few days earlier, and he was there as a politician who later would ask the citizens to vote for him in the next election. But he definitely didn't want them to know that he had made them the honour of writing the story for the Bazaar Book – which otherwise would have made it sell even more and in that way generate more money to the fund – although he had several chances of mentioning it.
Or if he mentioned it – during the recital or during his opening speech (both of them reported in detail in the newspaper) – the newspaper journalist thought that it was a totally unnecessary information that it was actually Conan Doyle who had written the Sherlock Holmes story in their local book. And this at a time in history when even the tiniest detail was reported in the newspaper.
After this Conan Doyle never ever mentioned officially that he had written the story.
Conan Doyle Didn’t Write the Lost Sherlock Holmes StoryThis is the scenario that must have happened, if Conan Doyle wrote the Selkirk story. It is an absurd story, and not just improbable, but in view of all the presented facts: impossible. I am sure that it is possible to criticize single facts and single conclusions mentioned above, but if you look at the whole picture – the combination of all the evidence – we can’t be but 100% sure that Conan Doyle did not write the Selkirk story.
The Final Word on the Lost Sherlock Holmes StoryIt is my sincere hope that this may be the final word on the lost Sherlock Holmes story. We don’t need more evidence that it is not by Conan Doyle, and we can treat the Selkirk story just as another example of early parodies and pastiches. It deserves no bigger attention than that.
At least this will be my final word on the matter.
Image credit: Scottish Indexes (Flickr)