“This” was the latest tantalising voice from the past, a lost – and found – Sherlock Holmes story written by Arthur Conan Doyle (full story below) that has been retrieved from an attic and was being devoured by Sherlock nerds all over the world. Honestly, any more hot off the press and people will start thinking I’m sort of a journalist and not an opinionated busybody, which is really more the case.
The mandatory February ’flu I had caught didn’t aid comprehension. So I had to read the piece again. Newspapers claim that it is a story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in 1904, as a fundraiser for a bridge. Essentially in the guise of a journalist imagining a Sherlock Holmes deduction, the story of the bridge is woven in. A noble intention, no doubt, and I have no reason to doubt that Conan Doyle supported the cause wholeheartedly.
But I do not believe that Conan Doyle wrote the story.
1. A writer of thrillers and adventures will have a kickass plot, whatever the size of the story.
This one doesn’t. It doesn’t even know whether it wants to be a detective story. It starts off as a journalist’s version of a Sherlock story, then introduces us to the main characters and has one deduction, that’s it. Even that deduction isn’t in the usual Sherlockian manner – precise, crisp, unemotional, quick - it feels convoluted.
This was published in 1904, after The Hound of The Baskervilles and bang in the middle of the series of stories that would become The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was at his peak at the time. Would he write such a weak piece? It really seems more likely that he asked a young enthusiast to write for him and approved it. Conan Doyle did occasionally use a co-author, but they were usually credited. He was no Dumas, who ran a sweatshop of stories of sorts.
2. The language isn’t Conan Doyle.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote simply for his time, with the dual aims of keeping his readers glued to the page and allowing the story’s pace to take centre stage. The Wodehousian twists and turns of prose that mark the beginning of the article were not his writing signature, to the best of my knowledge. There were some words he never used, and he tended to repeat his vocabulary a fair bit. The words “perorate” and “weird” make an appearance. I cannot recall a single Sherlock Holmes story with those words in them. Weird.
3. Holmes is supremely self-assured; arrogant sometimes.
In all the Sherlock Holmes stories I have read, there is a common underlying note – articulated praise, especially of a personal nature, is something Watson does. Holmes would rather die before he indulges in it. Praise was a one-way thing for the most part.
Witness this bit from the story that breaks all these rules and makes me suspicious. This is supposed to be Holmes talking-
Why, when I was retailing to you the steps that led up to the arrest of the Norwood builder by the impression of his thumb, I found a very great surprise that you were not listening at all to my reasoning, but were lilting a very sweet - a very sweet tune, Watson - "The Flowers of the Forest."
Holmes was musical, acutely so. When Conan Doyle describes Holmes either playing or listening to music, a reader can imagine him closing his eyes in concentration while listening, an irritable furrow appearing between his eyebrows at the slightest deviation from the precision of hitting the right note.
In the entire canon, there is no evidence of Watson’s musical ability except that of the appreciation of a lay person. Watson singing is difficult enough to believe; Holmes appreciating Watson’s singing is well-nigh impossible. He is far more likely to appreciate Watson’s very excellent field-glass, as he does in Silver Blaze, for example.
4. Politics? Holmes?
Free trade and protectionism were not a part of the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. They strike the wrong note by being present in a story, almost as if they are forced to be there to create enough of a case. Conan Doyle could do a lot better with his plots as a rule. This isn’t The Bruce-Partington Plans, for instance, where politics is the backbone but then there is a thriller to boot.
5. It is a bit spoofy, funny too
Would Arthur Conan Doyle spoof his own detective? Did he have a sense of the ridiculous? The Sherlock Holmes stories are very clear about the genre they belong to. The stories are written straight up, aren’t they? Yet, hold on – Conan Doyle himself started the sub-genre of the gentle spoof of his main characters. In 1924, in a 503 word long story called ‘How Watson Learned The Trick,’ he does a gentle send-up of his own characters. Even earlier, in 1896 as a fundraiser, he wrote the story The Field Bazaar, where Holmes deduces the content and the sender of a letter that Watson reads. Playfully, Conan Doyle puts himself in the story.
Of course, it isn’t impossible that Conan Doyle wrote it, but the niggles remain.
What struck me about the story itself was that it was forgotten because it was forgettable, and should at best be remembered as a curiosity. Perhaps Conan Doyle was playful with his characters when it was not a regular story meant for publication? It is believable that he would aid in a fundraiser. But what about the choice of words, the uncharacteristic jocularity of Holmes, the deduction that feels forced? I have embraced my conspiracy theory. What do YOU think, gentle but suspicious reader?
Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, By Deduction, the Brig Bazaar
We've had enough of the old romanticists and the men of travel, said the Editor. As he blue-pencilled his copy, and made arrangements for the great Saturday edition of the Bazar Book. 'We want something up-to-date. Why not have a word from "Sherlock Holmes"?'
Editors have only to speak and it is done, at least, they think so. 'Sherlock Holmes!' As well talk of interviewing the Man in the Moon. But it does not do to tell Editors all that you think. I had no objections whatever, I assured the Editor, to buttonhole 'Sherlock Holmes,' but to do so I should have to go to London.
'London!' scornfully sniffed the Great Man. 'And you profess to be a journalist? Have you never heard of the telegraph, the telephone, or the phonograph? Go to London! And are you not aware that all journalists are supposed to be qualified members of the Institute of Fiction, and to be qualified to make use of the Faculty of Imagination? By the use of the latter men have been interviewed, who were hundreds of miles away; some have been "interviewed" without either knowledge or consent. See that you have a topical article ready for the press for Saturday. Good day'.'
I was dismissed and had to find copy by hook or by crook. Well, the Faculty of Imagination might be worth a trial.
The familiar house in Sloan Street met my bewildered gaze. The door shut, the blinds drawn. I entered; doors are no barrier to one who uses the Faculty of Imagination. The soft light from an electric bulb flooded the room. 'Sherlock Holmes' sits by the side of the table' Dr Watson is on his feet about to leave for the night. Sherlock Holmes, as has lately been shown by a prominent journal, is a pronounced Free Trader. Dr Watson is a mild Protectionist, who would take his gruelling behind a Martello tower, as Lord Goschen wittily put it, but not 'lying down!' The twain had just finished a stiff argument on Fiscal policy. Holmes log.
'And when shall I see you again, Watson? The inquiry into the "mysteries of the Secret Cabinet" will be continued in Edinburgh on Saturday. Do you mind a run down to Scotland? You would get some capital data which you might turn to good account later.'
'I am very sorry,' replied Dr Watson. 'I should have liked to have gone with you, but a prior engagement prevents me. I will, however, have the pleasure of being in kindly Scottish company that day. I, also, am going to Scotland.'
'Ah! Then you are going to the Border country at that time?'
'How do you know that?'
'My dear Watson, it's all a matter of deduction.'
'Will you explain?'
'Well, when a man becomes absorbed in a certain theme, the murder will out some day. In many discussions you and I have on the fiscal question from time to time I have not failed to notice that you have taken up an attitude antagonistic to a certain school of thought, and on several occasions you have commented on the passing of "so-called' reforms, as you describe them, which you say were not the result of a spontaneous movement from or by the people, but solely due to the pressure of the Manchester School of politicians appealing to the mob. One of these allusions you made a peculiar reference to "Huz an' Mainchester" who had "turned the world upside down." The word "Huz" stuck to me, but after consulting many authors without learning anything as to the source of the word, I one day in reading a provincial paper noticed the same expression, which the writer said was descriptive of the way Hawick people looked at the progress of Reform. "Huz an' Mainchester' led the way. So, thought I, Watson has a knowledge of Hawick. I was still further confirmed in this idea by hearing you in several absent moments crooning a weird song of the Norwegian God Thor. Again I made enquires, and writing to a friend in the Sounth country I procured a copy of "Teribus." So, I reasoned, so – there's something in the air! What attraction has Hawick for Watson?'
'Wonderful,' Watson said, 'and – '
'Yes, and when you characterised the action of the German Government in seeking to hamper Canadian trade by raising her tariff wall against her, as a case of :Sour Plims," and again in a drawing room asked a mutual lady friend to sing you that fine old song, "Braw, braw lads," I was curious enough to look up the old ballad, and finding it had reference to a small town near to Hawick, I began to see a ray of daylight. Hawick had a place in your mind; likewise so had Galashiels - so much was apparent. The question to be decided was why?'
'So far so good. And – '
'Later still the plot deepened. Why, when I was relating to you the steps that led up to the arrest of the Norwood builder by the impression of his thumb, I found a very great surprise that you were not listening at all to my reasoning, but were lilting a very sweet a very sweet tune Watson – "The Flowers of the Forest;" then I in turn consulted an authority on the subject, and found that that lovely if tragic song had a special reference to Selkirk. And you remember, Watson, how very enthusiastic you grew all of a sudden on the subject of Common Ridings, and how much you studied the history of James IV., with special reference to Flodden Field. All these things speak, Watson, to the orderly brain of a thinker. Hawick, Galashiels, and Selkirk. What did the combination mean? I felt I must sold the problem, Watson; so that night when you left me, after we had discussed the "Tragedy of a Divided House," I ordered in a ton of tobacco, wrapped my cloak about me, and spent the night in thought. When you came round in the morning the problem was solved. I could not on the accumulative evidence but come to the conclusion that you contemplated another Parliamentary contest. Watson, you have the Border Burghs in your eye!'
'In my head, Holmes,' said Watson.
'And where do you travel to on Saturday, Watson?'
'I am going to Selkirk; I have an engagement there to open a Bazaar.'
'Is it in aide of a Bridge, Watson?'
'Yes,' replied Watson in surprise; 'but how do you know? I have never mentioned the matter to you.'
'By word, no, but by your action you have revealed the bent of your mind.'
'Let me explain. A week ago you came round to my rooms and asked for a look at "Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome." (You know I admire Macaulay's works, and have a full set.) That volume, after a casual look at, you took with you. When you returned it a day or two later I noticed it was marked with a slip of paper at the "Lay of Horatius," and I detected a faint pencil mark on the slip noting that the closing stanza was very appropriate. As you know, Watson, the lay is all descriptive of the keeping of a bridge. Let me remind you how nicely you would perorate –
When the goodman mends his armour And trims his helmet's plume, When the goodwife's shuttle merrily Goes flashing through the loom, With weeping and with laughter. Still the story told – How well Horatius kept the bridge, In the brave days of old.
Could I, being mortal, help thinking you were bent on such exploit yourself?'
'Well, goodbye, Watson; shall be glad of your company after Saturday. Remember Horatius's words when you go to Border Burghs :- "How can man die better than facing fearful odds." But there, these words are only illustrations. Safe journey, and success to the Brig!'