'Lost' Sherlock Holmes tale probably isn't Arthur Conan Doyle's, expert says

Elementary, my dear Watson! Did you really think that was an authentic Arthur Conan Doyle story?

Not so fast, Sherlock.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the latest literary figure to appear to have written a "lost" manuscript. It's certainly been a good year for them. First came the news of "Go Set a Watchman," the first book from Harper Lee since her classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published in 1960. In February we learned that there will be another book to add to the Dr. Seuss section on children's bookshelves: The long-lost "What Pet Should I Get?" And then late last week came the widely reported news that Arthur Conan Doyle had written a long-lost short story, "Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, by deduction, the Brig Bazaar." 

Or maybe he didn't.

On the Sherlockian website I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, scholars have been debating the authorship of the rediscovered story. It's still a mystery, but many believe that it's more likely the story is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche than a genuine Arthur Conan Doyle article.

"I think that the 'evidence' at this point leans heavily in favor of the story being the product of a writer other than Conan Doyle," Les Klinger, author of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories," told The Times, adding, "though nothing is conclusive one way or the other."

Here's a quick rundown of what happened: Walter Elliott, a retired Scottish woodcutter and amateur historian, said he discovered a crumbling pamphlet in his attic. Printed in 1903, the pamphlet clearly features a Sherlock Holmes story, complete with prickly dialog between Holmes and Watson. The pamphlet, which Elliott said he had stashed away in his attic for 40 or 50 years, was printed and sold as part of a benefit for a new bridge in the region. Conan Doyle appeared in the town at the time to support the efforts for the bridge (he was considering a run for office).

So the story is headlined Sherlock Holmes, and Conan Doyle was present at the scene. It seems elementary: The Sherlock Holmes story is authentic.

But, just a like Sherlock Holmes mystery, the truth may be more complicated. Here are some clues:

First, the story was headlined "Sherlock Holmes," in quotes -- something that would have indicated a fiction.

Second, there is no mention of Arthur Conan Doyle in the table of contents, or by those promoting the pamphlet. Conan Doyle's name did appear in other materials for the bridge fundraiser -- for his appearance, for instance -- so if he had written a story for the pamphlet, it's likely that fact would have been trumpeted by the organizers.

Third, the story isn't very Conan Doyle-y. "The style seems pretty far away from other pieces Conan Doyle tossed off as contributions ['The Field Bazaar' and another called 'How Watson Learned the Trick']," Klinger said. "In both of those cases, the recipient gave prominent attribution of the piece to Conan Doyle for purposes of heightening the value."

Finally, the story has been invisible up until now. No one has found mention of it in Conan Doyle's papers or correspondence. At least, not yet.

At I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, Mattias Boström is certain: "The lost Sherlock Holmes story is definitely a pastiche," he wrote. "Not an especially good one, but an early one, and a good example of how Conan Doyle's creation was used freely by other authors."

Klinger noted that Sherlock Holmes parodies started appearing about 10 years before. For good measure, he relayed a story about how the hunger for more Sherlock Holmes led to another "lost" Conan Doyle story being "discovered" and published in the very respectable Saturday Evening Post.

The story, "The Man Who Was Wanted," was found among Conan Doyle's papers in the 1950s. Originally hailed as a "lost" Conan Doyle story, it turned out to have been written by an aspiring author, Arthur Whitaker, who had sent it to Conan Doyle for his opinion. Later, the attribution was retracted.

Book news and more; I'm @paperhaus on Twitter

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
72°