The Best of Sherlock Holmes
The Publication of His Lost First Novel
By Randall Stock, July 16, 2012
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first novel at the age of 23, but he later explained that this manuscript was lost in the mail and the story was never published. In 2004 the British Library acquired a large collection of papers from the Conan Doyle family archives, including an untitled manuscript with much of his first novel. See below for details on the manuscript, its history, and its publication by the British Library in 2011.
Robert Lindsay examines the manuscript
Photo courtesy of The British Library
In this previously unpublished story, Conan Doyle writes about a man confined to his room with an attack of gout, and uses this character to express his own thoughts and opinions on fields ranging from science and medicine to religion and philosophy. Conan Doyle's first novel offers new perspectives on a man who would become one of the most famous authors in the world.
The Narrative of John Smith by Arthur Conan Doyle
ed. by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Rachel Foss
Hardcover: 138 pages
Publisher: The British Library
Available: October 2011
List Price: US$15.00 / UK£9.95
4 CDs with booklet, approx. 270 minutes
Publisher: The British Library
Available: October 2011
List Price: US$35.00 / UK£19.59
Read by Robert Lindsay (online sample)
"The heart of every lover of British writing will rejoice at this discovery of an early and as yet unpublished work by the creator of Holmes, Watson, Moriarty and Professor Challenger. The breadth, depth and scope of Conan Doyle's knowledge and curiosity is often overlooked. He was the first popular writer to tell the wider reading public about narcotics, the Ku Klux Klan, the mafia, the Mormons, American crime gangs, corrupt union bosses and much else besides. His boundless energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging mind, not to mention the pitch-perfect, muscular and memorable prose is all on display here in a work whose publication is very very welcome indeed."
—Stephen Fry, actor, screenwriter, author, playwright
A special slipcased cloth-bound edition, limited to 250 numbered copies is available from the British Library shop for £100
Conan Doyle began his literary career by writing short stories for magazines. At that time, magazines typically did not identify the author of a story. This limited an author's financial opportunities and public recognition, and Conan Doyle decided to write a novel. He probably started writing it in 1883, and he first publicly described this effort some ten years later in the following magazine article.
The Idler Magazine, Volume 2, January 1893, pp. 633-640
...Yet my apprenticeship was a long and trying one. During ten years of hard work, I averaged less than fifty pounds a year from my pen. I won my way into the best journals, Cornhill, Temple Bar, and so on; but what is the use of that when the contributions to those journals must be anonymous? … After ten years of such work I was as unknown as if I had never dipped a pen in an ink-bottle...
And so at last it was brought home to me that a man may put the very best that is in him into magazine work for years and years and reap no benefit from it, save, of course, the inherent benefits of literary practice. So I wrote another of my first books and sent it off to the publishers. Alack and alas for the dreadful thing that happened! The publishers never received it, the post office sent countless blue forms to say that they knew nothing about it, and from that day to this no word has ever been heard of it. Of course it was the best thing I ever wrote. Who ever lost a manuscript that wasn't? But I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print. If one or two other of my earlier efforts had also been lost in the post my conscience would have been the lighter. This one was called "The Narrative of John Smith," and it was of a personal-social-political complexion. Had it appeared I should have probably awakened to find myself infamous, for it steered, as I remember it, perilously near to the libellous. However, it was safely lost, and that was the end of another of my first books.
Conan Doyle does not seem to have mentioned this story again. In his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures he instead credits The Firm of Girdlestone as his "first attempt at a connected narrative." That novel was written in 1884 and 1885, but it was not published until 1890, after both his first Sherlock Holmes novel and Micah Clarke saw print.
His biographers took him at his word, and for many years considered the manuscript to be lost. Hesketh Pearson had access to the Conan Doyle archive of papers in the early 1940s for his biography Conan Doyle (1943). He mentions The Narrative of John Smith but his comments indicate that he was relying on the Idler article or its reprints.
John Dickson Carr also had access to the archives and even provides an inventory in The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1949). He does not list the manuscript, but it could have been overlooked as unused draft copy since it's untitled and in notebooks. Indeed, Carr didn't list an exercise book containing the end of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Solitary Cyclist," but this later showed up in the family papers as I discuss in "The Trail of the Semi-Solitary Manuscript" in the Winter 2005 Baker Street Journal.
One other biographer had access to the family archives in the twentieth century. Pierre Nordon offered a mix of biography and literary analysis in his Conan Doyle (1966), but does not mention either the story or the manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith.
The first report of an existing manuscript appears to have come in late 1970. Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of Sir Arthur, died on 3 June 1970 and left a large collection of Sir Arthur's papers to his wife Anna. She in turn engaged Lew David Feldman, of the House of El Dieff, as an agent to sell the material. He produced a four-page catalog Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Archives that was distributed at the BSI Dinner in January 1971. In it, he mentions an unpublished and untitled 155 page story, written as a first-person narrative in four small folio notebooks, and labels it a "thinly veiled intellectual autobiography." Although Feldman does not identify it as The Narrative of John Smith, this is clearly the manuscript sold in 2004. Feldman later offered much of the material to the Toronto Public Library and in various other catalogs, but did not include this manuscript.
For thirty more years the manuscript lay unremarked and virtually unknown in the Conan Doyle archives. It came to light with the 2004 Conan Doyle sale at Christie's by the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle, in which Lot 11 was identified as Conan Doyle's first novel. The British Library purchased the manuscript for £47,800 (US$84,606), and put it on display in December 2004. The BL published the story for the first time in September 2011.
The manuscript's existence seems to conflict with Conan Doyle's 1893 account of it being lost. However, since the story is not complete, this is almost certainly not the manuscript Conan Doyle sent to a publisher. Instead it's probably a partial reconstruction by Conan Doyle.
According to Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (2007), Conan Doyle wrote to his mother Mary Doyle in February 1884 and told her "No I never got poor John Smith, I am going to rewrite him from memory, but my hands are very full now." This phrasing supports his 1893 report of it being lost, and suggests the current manuscript is his incomplete attempt to rewrite the story.
See a photo of the manuscript and get a detailed description of the manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith.
by Randall Stock, October 15, 2011
Conan Doyle's first published novel gave birth to Sherlock Holmes, one of the classic characters of fiction. Yet Holmes did not simply burst into existence. The author's previously unpublished first attempt at a novel includes many ideas and phrases that would find their way into A Study in Scarlet and other Holmes tales.
The Narrative of John Smith is not a mystery or an adventure story and does not include Holmes or Watson. Conan Doyle later described it as having a "personal-social-political complexion" and it certainly has a semi-autobiographical flavor. Ostensibly about a man confined to his room during an attack of rheumatic gout, the novel is really a platform for the author to muse on topics of the day and to highlight his studies and recent education.
Conan Doyle recognized the drawbacks to this sort of story. In fact, at one point his main character even notes that "it is as impertinent as it is inartistic of a novelist to wander away from his story in order to give us his own opinions on this or that subject." In this case there is very little story and quite a bit of opinion. This volume should be read more as a notebook about Conan Doyle and the 1880s than as a novel.
Full of allusions, quotations, and references to contemporary matters, readers will find the introduction and annotations to be essential . Fortunately the editors bring exceptional knowledge of Conan Doyle and his writings to their commentary. An excellent introduction includes the biographical context for the book and a very even-handed assessment of it. The end-notes span 17 pages and clearly explain the many points that would otherwise puzzle a casual reader. They also highlight how Conan Doyle re-used portions of his text in later work.
Indeed, I was struck by how often I encountered something that was echoed in a Holmes tale or in other Conan Doyle writings. There is an army officer with a "limp from a Jezail bullet in the knee," a doctor who acts as a sounding board for the main character, and a landlady who lives in the house. Even more directly, he talks about "little brain-attics" where "new ideas elbow out the old ones," quotes that genius is "an infinite capacity for taking pains," and refers to the "fifth proposition of Euclid." He also reworked substantial portions of it into his 1895 semi-autobiographical novel The Stark Munro Letters.
Conan Doyle said his original manuscript for this story was lost in the mail, but he told his mother he would rewrite it from memory and this incomplete working revision appears to be the result. The writing is uneven. Some parts of it are rather slow going, though a few sections display his future skill as storyteller. While it does contain some interesting ideas, predictions, and incidents, there is little character development and it is not successful as a novel.
However, it does succeed as a valuable source of new insights into the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his development as a writer. An excellent introduction and extensive notes make it accessible to a wider audience, and all Doyleans should read it.
A Note on the Text:
The book includes a portrait photo of Conan Doyle as a young doctor, a photo of him in front of his Southsea home of Bush Villa, and a reproduction of the second page of his handwritten manuscript. The transcribed text of the story incorporates his revisions without comment, but does indicate stricken passages.
The News & Press Reports section has links to other reviews, which are marked with an asterisk.
Jon Lellenberg, U.S. agent for the family's Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., has written about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes for more than 30 years. He co-edited the award-winning BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters as well as the forthcoming "Dangerous Work": Diary of an Arctic Adventure. Lellenberg's novel Baker Street Irregular was published in November 2010. Some of his other books include The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a study of how his life has been treated biographically), Nova 57 Minor (the story behind the supposed Sixty-First Adventure of Sherlock Holmes), and eight volumes of The Baker Street Irregulars History series (including Mid-Forties, Late Forties).
Daniel Stashower is a two-time Edgar Award-winning author who wrote Teller of Tales, a widely praised biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and co-edited both Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters and the forthcoming "Dangerous Work": Diary of an Arctic Adventure. Some of his other recent books include The Beautiful Cigar Girl and The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television.
Rachel Foss is Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library.
You can listen to online audio interviews with the editors via links below in the Book Talk section.
For information on personal appearances by the editors, see the Events section.
Podcasts and streaming audio let you listen to reports and interviews with the editors.
Co-editors Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower on the "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" Podcast
Jon and Dan are interviewed by Scott Monty and Burt Wolder in this 23 November 2011 podcast.
It's part of an excellent series from Scott and Burt on "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere."
The 45-minute interview starts at the 4-minute mark and ends with news about an upcoming facsimile of Doyle's whaling diary.
Right-click the following link and choose "Save As" to download the interview in MP3 format (File size: 51.9 MB).
For some of the topics covered in the interview, see the episode page at:
Includes her interview, along with an extract from the audio book read by Robert Lindsay
This segment first appeared on the BBC World Update September 26, 2011 segment at 10:48 AM.
Listen to the BBC streaming audio interview with Rachel Foss (Flash, 4.5 minutes)
(The interview starts at the 43 minute mark of the program, and is available until October 3, 2011.)
Her interview was on their Morning Report for Monday September 26, 2011 and is available online
Listen to the streaming audio interview with Rachel Foss (Windows Media, 3 minutes)
Co-editor Daniel Stashower on CBC/Radio-Canada
Dan's interview aired on the show As It Happens on June 7, 2011, and is available online.
Episode summary page: http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/episode/2011/06/07/tuesday-june-7-2011/
Conan Doyle's First Novel
The interview was in Part Two of the online audio, beginning at 12:35 minutes into Part Two.
Listen to just the portion of the streaming audio interview with Daniel Stashower (6.5 minutes).
Robert Lindsay reads from The Narrative of John Smith (YouTube, 6.5 minutes) with some related photos
Conan Doyle speaks about creating Sherlock Holmes
The British Library Sound Archive has an 8-minute recording of Conan Doyle, and provides a streaming online 2-minute excerpt of this actual recording of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking about Sherlock Holmes. If this link does not work for you, try searching for "NP3794" in the BL Sound Catalogue, and then click the Details button for his Sherlock Holmes talk. That catalogue detail page gives links to Electronic Access to listen to the recording.
For online audio with Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower about Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, see the Life in Letters Book Talk Audio section.
Listed in order by date:
September 9, 2011 – January 5, 2012: British Library Exhibition
Free Admission: Arthur Conan Doyle: The Unknown Novel
Items on display will include:
- One of the four manuscript notebooks of The Narrative of John Smith
- Part of the manuscript of The Stark Munro Letters
- Letters from ACD to his mother about his early attempts to get published
- Other ACD manuscript material
September 23, 2011: Daniel Stashower at the National Press Club in Washington, DC
Dan's topic is "Alas for the thing that happened: Conan Doyle's lost novel"
September 28, 2011: Launch Event for The Narrative of John Smith at the British Library in London
See Alistair Duncan's blog post with photos from the event
October 1, 2011: Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower at The Newberry Library in Chicago
Jon and Dan will talk about Conan Doyle's Lost Novel
October 2, 2011: Robert Lindsay on That Sunday Night Show
He will talk about the book and audio CD on the ITV1 Lifestyle Talk Show from 10.15-10.45PM
After it airs, the show might be available using the show's online ITV player
October 28, 2011: Co-editors at The Sons of the Copper Beeches Dinner in Philadelphia
Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower will speak about the book.
November 7, 2011: Co-editors at the Portsmouth BookFest in Portsmouth, England
Jon Lellenberg and Rachel Foss will talk about the book.
Portsmouth History Centre, Central Library, 7.30pm; for tickets see the Portsmouth BookFest 2011 Programme
November 27, 2011: Anthony Horowitz and Roger Johnson at the British Library
Bestselling author Anthony Horowitz talks about his upcoming Sherlock Holmes book and related matters with the editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal
March 16, 2012: Two Conan Doyle books at the University Club of Chicago
Jon Lellenberg (co-editor of John Smith) and Michael Dirda (author of On Conan Doyle) will give a joint presentation on their two Conan Doyle books at noon for the University Club's Conan Doyle Book Lunch.
Reviews are preceded by an asterisk. Unless noted, online reports were available free to the public when originally posted. Some websites may remove online articles or charge for accessing older items. See also Book Talk for online audio interviews about the book and the Events section for related information.
I try to list every appearance with unique information or photos. Websites that simply duplicate other online news stories, or that contain minimal original reporting, may not be listed. Word counts are approximate and reflect online content; printed stories sometimes vary from their online version.
* Publishers Weekly, July 16, 2012 (210 words)
The Narrative of John Smith (review)
Describes it as an "interesting read" especially for Sherlockians
* The Times Literary Supplement, January 6, 2012, p. 20 (480 words)
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Narrative of John Smith by Colin Fleming
Insightful review calling it "an intriguing false start" that shows the beginnings of a prose style few writers can match
[Not available for free online]
* PhiloBiblos Blog, January 5, 2012 (500 words)
Book Review: "The Narrative of John Smith" by Jeremy Dibbell
Review highlights the "insight it offers into the author's early style" and praises the annotations
Winnipeg Free Press, December 10, 2011 (190 words about John Smith)
You can't keep a good detective down, Watson by Ron Robinson
He calls it "revealing and well-footnoted but of interest mainly to collectors and fans"
* The Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011 (90 words about John Smith)
Books that address pivotal points in history by Nick Owchar
Capsule review of John Smith, along with other brief reviews for books including On Conan Doyle
The Guardian, December 2, 2011 (210 words about John Smith)
Posthumous pop: the stars who keep on selling by Emine Saner
On releasing material after death of creator; calls John Smith "fascinating to Conan Doyle scholars"
The Occasional Pamphlet blog, December 1, 2011 (660 words)
Conan Doyle on the prevention of cruelty to books by Stuart Shieber
About Doyle's view on damaging books, with extract from John Smith
The Portsmouth News, November 21, 2011 (150 words)
Conan Doyle’s first prize
Report on winner of a limited edition copy of John Smith at BookFest
Good Reading Magazine, Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012, p. 10
Book Trivia: Lost and Found
Capsule summary of the book and its history
[Not available online]
The Portsmouth News, November 8, 2011 (360 words)
Tale of John Smith is a clue to Conan Doyle’s early work
At BookFest, co-editors Foss and Lellenberg discussed ACD's life in Southsea. Large photo of co-editors.
Words to Paint a Thousand Pictures (blog), November 8, 2011 (540 words)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Unpublished Novel
An account of the BookFest event by a local, with photo of co-editors
Scuttlebutt from the Spermaceti Press, October 2011, p. 3. (100 words)
["Conan Doyle's THE NARRATIVE OF JOHN SMITH...] by Peter E. Blau
* Blogcritics.org, October 25, 2011 (660 words)
Book Review: The Narrative Of John Smith by Arthur Conan Doyle by Scott Varnham
Varnham says "you can see Conan Doyle's style developing" and found it surprisingly engaging
Also at: http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Narrative-Of-John-Smith-by-2236026.php
The Portsmouth News, October 16, 2011 (290 words)
Conan Doyle’s first novel to be Portsmouth literary festival highlight by Joe Nimmo
Short article highlighting the editor event on November 7 at Bookfest
* The District Messenger, no. 316, October 15 2011 (275 words)
[Arthur Conan Doyle lost the manuscript of his first novel...] by Roger Johnson
Johnson says he was "reminded of the Sketches by Boz, which is no bad thing"
http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/pdf/DM316.pdf [note: requires Acrobat or PDF viewer]
Life in Haslemere, October 10, 2011 (580 words)
Celebrating the first novel of Conan Doyle
The Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT) attends the book launch, with a photo from it
The Providence Journal, October 9, 2011 (200 words)
Local bestsellers: Oct. 9
The Narrative ranked fourth locally in fiction sales that week
Alistair Duncan's Sherlockian Blog, September 29, 2011 (200 words)
British Library launch event for "The Narrative of John Smith" by Alistair Duncan
Brief notes and numerous photos from the book's launch event at the BL
The Voice of Russia [English edition], September 27, 2011 (690 words)
Conan Doyle boom in literature and cinema by Karina Ivashko
Background on the novel and more information about a Russian edition
Radio New Zealand, September 26, 2011 (130 words)
Early novel by Conan Doyle
Summary announcement of publication; see also their audio interview with Rachel Foss
Culture 24, September 26, 2011 (450 words)
Elementary: Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel published by the British Library by Nick Owen
Story background and publication announcement based on the BL press release, with two photos
The New York Times Arts Beat Blog, September 26, 2011 (260 words)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Novel Is Published in Britain by Dave Itzkoff
Brief story background and publication announcement based on the BL press release
The Independent on Sunday, September 25, 2011, pp. 26-27 (630 word article + 1,230 words from book)
Sherlock Holmes's origins revealed by Matthew Bell
Provides background history on ACD and the novel, with four extracts from the book
BBC News, September 25, 2011 (310 words)
Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel hits shops
Brief story background and publication announcement based on the BL press release
The Narrative of John Smith... to be published by the British Library for the first time
Announces publication, with background on the story and quotations from co-editors and Stephen Fry
Includes 7 photos, with 3 of ACD and 4 of the manuscript
Also published at: http://www.booktrade.info/index.php/showarticle/36119
See also the BL YouTube sample from the audio book
* The Sunday Times, September 18, 2011, p. 55 (850 words)
A man of many parts by David Grylls
Book review says that it "crackles with the burning curiosity that Doyle brought to all his activities" and merits publication based on the biographical insights it provides
[Not available for free online]
The Voice of Russia [English edition], September 16, 2011 (105 words)
Conan Doyle manuscript novel to see light
Brief announcement notes a Russian edition will appear in December
British Library Press Release, August 22, 2011 (40 words)
British Library events and exhibitions
Announces BL exhibition for 9 Sep. 2011 - 5 Jan. 2012 of the manuscript and other ACD material
see also some details about the BL materials on display in the Events section
CBC Books, June 14, 2011 (330 words)
Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel published...130 years after it was written
Summary of CBC/Radio-Canada June 7 interview with co-editor Daniel Stashower
Listen to the streaming audio interview with Daniel Stashower (6.5 minutes).
Reuters Life! June 7, 2011 (570 words)
First Conan Doyle novel to be published by Mike Collett-White
More info on the upcoming book, with comments by co-editor Jon Lellenberg
Syndicated to numerous outlets including:
BBC News, June 6, 2011 (260 words)
First Conan Doyle novel to be published by Emma Saunders
The Guardian (UK) June 6, 2011, p. 5 Main section (460 words)
Lost Conan Doyle novel to be published by Alison Flood
Early info on the book, with comments by BL curator Rachel Foss
Scuttlebutt from the Spermaceti Press, May 2011, p. 4. (230 words)
["So I wrote another of my first books...] by Peter E. Blau
The District Messenger, no. 312, May 28, 2011 (86 words)
[Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel...] by Roger Johnson
http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/pdf/DM312.pdf [note: requires Acrobat or PDF viewer]
British Library Publishing Catalogue July – December 2011, pp. 2-3 (May 2011) (360 words)
New Titles: The Narrative of John Smith
Includes an overview of the book and a low-resolution image of a manuscript page from the novel
The Independent, December 2, 2004 (500 words)
Conan Doyle's manuscripts reveal a meticulous chronicler by Louise Jury
Describes the British Library exhibit, with quotes from BL staff
British Library Press Release, December 2, 2004 (580 words)
Elementary - wealth of Sherlock Holmes creator revealed in new display
First public display of manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith at the BL, 2 Dec. 2004 – 31 Jan. 2005
Originally posted at: http://www.bl.uk/cgi-bin/press.cgi?story=1459
British Library Press Release, May 21, 2004 (675 words)
Saved for the Nation: Conan Doyle manuscripts bought by the British Library
The BL purchases material from the Conan Doyle archives, including The Narrative of John Smith
Originally posted at: http://www.bl.uk/cgi-bin/press.cgi?story=1429
For more details about the 2004 sale and links to many more news reports, see my Conan Doyle archives sold at Christie's in 2004 page
Return to Manuscripts Home page and Introduction
Vers. 1.80bx Original work