Monday, February 23, 2015

Selkirk's "Lost Sherlock Holmes Story" - A Case of Literary Identity.

Illustration by Sidney Paget.

"Look at that with your magnifying glass, Mr Holmes."

The Norwood Builder.

The revelation of a hitherto unrecorded story featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson has been attributed widely and prematurely to the authorship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, by Deduction, the Brig Bazaar" may be read in its original entirety in The Daily Mail 20 February, 2015 whose article details the circumstances of the discovery with a headline that cannot be taken as gospel, certainly not according to the website "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" whose prompt survey of extant contemporary documents concludes Conan Doyle Didn't Write the Lost Sherlock Holmes Story. 

In his comment on a lucid article by Mattias BoströmLeslie S Klinger finds his fellow Sherlockian's analysis "persuasive" though he is not sure it is "conclusive" and notes "there is much work still to be done".

In that spirit, I propose here to put the story itself under the magnifying glass for signs of Conan Doyle's literary fingerprints. Could he and would he have written it?

A Narrative in Three Movements.

1) The reader is addressed by a nameless narrator tasked by the Editor of "The Bazaar Book" with writing a topical "interview" with "Sherlock Holmes" for its Saturday edition. Rejecting unviable alternatives, the Editor's hint that resourceful journalists use their imagination is readily taken up.

2) The narrator describes the process of imagining an entry impossible in reality into an imaginary room containing (imagined) Holmes and Watson. Shifting into the present tense, warming to the creation of palpable fancy, our narrator asserts arrival just as Watson is leaving for the night after a heated discussion on fiscal policy.

3) Signalling the start of an extended imaginary dialogue between detective and doctor (with the dramatic abbreviation "loq" (for 'loquitur'), the narrative voice all but mutes in a story only a quarter begun. There follow two imagined passages of deduction, triggered by the invention of parallel trips to Scotland: that Watson's destination is the Borders for "another Parliamentary contest" and that the bazaar he is to open is in aid of a bridge. Holmes bids his friend a teasing farewell. Finis.

Discussion of Authorship.

I set out here to clarify the implications of claiming Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this 1300 word occasional piece. If he did, it would (chronologically) be the second of three, flanked by The Field Bazaar of 1896 (1050 words) and 1923's How Watson Learned the Trick (500 words). These are closer comparisons to consider than the Canon stories proper. I shall look first at the narrator framework and then at the deductions dialogue.

A Unique Device.

If A N Other wrote the Selkirk story it is possible its narrator is identical with the author (ie: a 'reporter').
Attribution to Conan Doyle, however, necessarily renders the narrator an invention unique in his Holmes oeuvre. {I can envisage no commentator who would seriously argue Doyle wrote the deduction sequences and acquiesced in a narrative framework by a different hand.} By 1903, Holmes has his resident Boswell, a proven device only departed from on the few occasions the detective tells his own story and recourse with good reason to third person narration. "The Mazarin Stone" is a prose adaptation of the play "The Crown Diamond"; I discuss the special case of "His Last Bow" HERE and, while, strictly, the brief "How Watson Learned the Trick" is third person narrative, it's mostly continuous dialogue. Doyle is content to entrust the narrative of "The Field Bazaar" (the closest parallel for the Selkirk piece) to Watson.

I can suggest no artistic reason why in December, 1903, Conan Doyle would make so radical a departure, the more radical given his current imaginative absorption in "The Return" stories. If he could slip effortlessly back into a Watsonian narrative in 1896 for one solitary bazaar piece, I'd be surprised if he abandoned the good doctor in '03.

If the 'reporter' is Doyle's creation two related literary problems arise: the narrator's characterization and the presentation of Holmes and Watson. Apart from the first two movements delaying the appearance of this interview's subjects, the narrator's blatant stress on imagination effectively forestalls any suspension of disbelief as surely as Shakespeare's 'rude mechanicals'. Were an imagined interview to ensue (it doesn't), it would be stillborn. The greater the insistence that imagination can pass through closed doors the less the reader is transported anywhere. In short, we have a naive narrator rooted in one world with no credible presence in that inhabited by the insubstantial shadows claimed to be Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Even when, in the simplistic jar to present tense, the famous pair are invoked, like spirits conjured, they barely enjoy a half-life. There is no interview; there is not even an overview by our intrepid, unperceived reporter. There is far too much blocking the reader's imaginative view of anyone resembling Doyle's creations. First it is the self-conscious, clunking presence of the narrator; then, throughout the deductions dialogue, such a fusillade of political reference and literary allusion that both Doyle's characters and the skill of deduction are demeaned: the former puppet mouthpieces for the Tariff debate; the latter a washing line on which to peg a motley selection of Border literature.

To keep this discussion clear, I have appended notes on specific allusions to the politics of the day and sources from which the Border references are drawn. I would just stress that I see nothing with which Conan Doyle might not reasonably be familiar. By the same token, the good folk of Selkirk would be as well up on the national Tariff debate and positively steeped in their local cultural heritage. It is not this content that is significant to the question of authorship but the use to which it is put.

Joseph Chamberlain's Free Trade & Tariff Loaves Nov 4, 1903.

To be invited without preamble to envisage Holmes and Watson as Free Trader and (mild) Protectionist is to be jolted into an unfamiliar personal political arena alien to the Canon. Indeed, that Sherlock Holmes rises above such partisan concerns is arguably presented as an occupational necessity to maintain objectivity. Holmes's reference to the "Mysteries of the Secret Cabinet" is but the first in what will prove to be an inordinately lengthy chain of strained attempts to relate the writer's real interests (politics and the Borders) with detective fiction. "The Tragedy of a Divided House" will, later, play as unsubtly on the recent "Return" story title.

The Norwood Builder - a special problem.

Before examining the overall quality and impact of the deductions, it is instructive to highlight an analogy employed drawn from "The Norwood Builder" in which Holmes refers to "retailing (to Watson) the steps that led up to the arrest of the...builder by the impression of his thumb."

Now, as well as the addition of a "lilting" Watson, this is a fabrication. More seriously, the narrative logic locates the Selkirk story and deductions firmly in 1903. The Canon story is set 8 or 9 years earlier, mere months after the detective's Return.

Anyone claiming Doyle wrote for the Brig Bazaar must contend with:
1) A deliberate or forgetful misrepresentation of a story published but a month earlier.
2) A calculated or thoughtless abandoning of Canon chronology.

I shall not rehearse the totally valid reasons why Frederic Dorr Steele knowingly deploys artistic licence in his cover design for "The Norwood Builder". The anonymous author's misrepresentation is another matter. There are plenty of analogies in other stories that would accurately have suited the occasion.


The first passage of deduction reveals how, over several days of observation, research and thinking Holmes knows without being told that Watson is heading for the Border Burghs with a view to standing for parliament again. 

In the process of deducing the doctor has (in order) Hawick, Galashiels and Selkirk on his mind, we encounter a Holmes who observes only in so far as he listens, one given to such disproportionate research as writing to a friend miles away for an obscure tome. This Watson is vociferously political and so ambitious of a candidacy he mugs up on Border politics, history, music and literature. Both characters are diminished from what is usually an iconic exchange. The prospect of this pair passing the evening in a drawing room with a mutual lady friend could only occur in a Street called "Sloan"; never "Baker". Nor does a tin of tobacco, smoked in the cloak of night pass muster as the last link in a chain of deduction. 

In truth, we haven't really witnessed a classic Sherlockian deduction - a couple of lazy 2's have gone through the motions of making 4.

Devoid of true inspiration, 'deducing' the bridge turns again on a literary allusion at the expense of Watson's dignity and without illustration of the detective's extraordinary powers. I say "Watson" but he has faded long before, supplanted by someone resembling Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I would just add that if, as I shall presently argue, A N Other wrote this bizarre Bazaar piece, I detect a local voice in the teasing threat that "fearful odds" await aspiring politicians from the no-nonsense electorate of the Border Burghs and am irresistibly reminded of Richard Hannay's intractable audience.


This is a rarer genre than parody and self-parodies of real quality even rarer. Such is the context for my final discussion of a story that would be unique in Conan Doyle's writing, surprisingly unsuccessful and most strangely hatched in an alien style. I should advise anyone considering the authorship of this piece to read it alongside "The Field Bazaar". The 1896 deduction of Watson's invitation to support his alma mater's cricket club is far superior and no parody. The term is I think sometimes applied because of its brevity, wit and lightness of touch. In essence, however, though the bazaar provides a theme, Conan Doyle faithfully breathes immediate life into Holmes and Watson of Baker Street, imbuing the train of reasoning with all the ingenuity he brings to the Canon proper. This detached scene would dovetail effortlessly into a conventional Holmes story. As ever, Conan Doyle's first concern is his art. He is in this uncompromising, even (especially) in the story designed to 'kill' his creation.

"The Field Bazaar" is an occasional piece evincing a generous, lively, lighthearted spirit enjoying the task but not at the expense of the imagination's dignity. The prose is consummate in its pellucid economy, the authentic dialogue fully realising character. In short, it is proof positive of what Conan Doyle is prepared and equipped to offer for such special occasions.

I detect a very different kind of mind informing the Selkirk story. It feels antiquarian in attitude and language. The drama and poetry of the 18th Century and Border history centered on Flodden Field are the limited province of a writer who understands next to nothing about imaginative fiction.

I see no sane reason why Conan Doyle should take on such a persona. Indeed, I believe him incapable of it. This is the writer who is, in 1903, taking infinite pains to assemble a series of Holmes stories of the first order. He is happy NORW meets the standard, not so content with December's SOLI. With regard to the forthcoming trip to Scotland his letters to Mary Doyle tell of a similar,  deeply serious concern to get his election speech just right. That is how he hopes to sway the Border electorate - not with an ingratiating self-parody. 

One of the most admirable qualities Sir Arthur Conan Doyle possessed was an enviable capacity to keep multiple interests and projects in the air at the same time in disciplined compartments. Whatever he commits to is done with full-blooded, indefatigable energy, devoting all his considerable skills. It would be unbelievably perverse for such a man to completely undermine an imaginative world for the sake of a seat in Parliament or a Border brig. To modify the words of Sherlock Holmes at the end of The Field Bazaar: the Border episode was one of those small outlying problems to which Conan Doyle was sometimes tempted to direct his attention.

I assume he opened the Saturday bazaar; I know he made his Selkirk speech. I'd think the less of him if it's ever proved he wrote this travesty.

 Sherlock Churchill berated by an Oldham Mrs Hudson? "You are the most destructive lodger I ever took in!"
Lord Goschen championed Free Trade in 1903. Joseph Chamberlain's biography (p294) describes his use of the Martello tower image (in common use): 

"Are you to take foreign tariffs lying down ? ' the advocate of the 
new policy had asked. ' Lying down ' became one of the familiar 
phrases of the fiscal school ; it was tossed backward and forward. 
Lord Goschen played with it in the Queen's Hall : ' What do these 
warlike champions recommend us to do ? To stand up ? No ! but 
to crouch behind a wall. British trade was no longer to sally forth 
and meet the foe, but to build fiscal martello towers around the coast 
and arm them with guns which were spiked forty years ago ! ' Thus 
the veterans fired into one another, and although there was not yet 
so much bitterness as in the case of the Home Rule split, gibes were 
sometimes used which caused resentment."

"Huz" means "we" and is listed in The Roxburghshire Word-Book 

"Teribus" - Teribus Ye Teri Odin 

"Common Riding" - Hawick and Selkirk 

"Flodden Field" Flodden and Selkirk

"Flowers of the Forest" - Link 1 and Link 2

"Braw Lads" - Braw Lads O Galla Water

Final Note: It is just possible that (to a Scot) the reference to a "Secret Cabinet" calls to mind a collection of erotic verse and bawdy song written by Robert Burns called - The Secret Cabinet or Merry Muses of Caledonia . This would raise the fascinating   question of what Sherlock Holmes may really have been up to in  Edinburgh!

© Ray Wilcockson (2015) All Rights Reserved.






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