LONDON – A hundred and twenty-seven years is a long time to wait for your debut novel to get into bookstores. But the unpublished first novel by Arthur Conan Doyle – best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes – will finally see the light of day.
The British Library, which holds a large collection of Conan Doyle’s works, announced yesterday that it will publish The Narrative of John Smith this autumn. According to BBC News, the Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate has given their permission to release the novel to the Library, which has held the novel in its collection of modern literary manuscripts since 2007.
Only in his mid-twenties at the time and working as a general-practice doctor, Conan Doyle wrote The Narrative of John Smith in 1883 and 1884, shortly after moving near Portsmouth, England. The original manuscript was lost in the mail on its way to the publisher, so the struggling young author rewrote the entire book from memory.
At that point, Conan Doyle had published several short stories anonymously in literary journals. A Study in Scarlet, the first novel to feature the world’s most famous fictional detective, wouldn’t appear until 1887.
Unlike the ever-popular Holmes books, The Narrative of John Smith is not a mystery or detective story. The title character is a 50-year-old man whose gout has confined him to his bedroom, and the novel uses him largely as a mouthpiece for Conan Doyle’s own opinions on books, science, religion, war and other issues of the time.
Rachel Foss, the British Library’s lead curator of modern literary manuscripts, told the BBC that the book is “loose in plot and characterization”. She added that although Holmes was embarrassed about the novel’s amateurish quality, he did return to working on it later in life.
“The Narrative is not successful fiction,” Jon Lellenberg, a Chicago-based Conan Doyle expert and one of the book’s editors, admitted to Reuters, “but offers remarkable insight into the thinking and views of a raw young writer who would shortly create one of literature's most famous and durable characters.” Lellenberg added: “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.”
Although very different in tone and content from the Sherlock Holmes stories that would make Conan Doyle a household name, The Narrative of John Smith does foreshadow familiar personalities from the author’s better-known works, with early prototypes of Holmes’ assistant, Dr. Watson, and other characters. John Smith’s landlady, Mrs. Rundle, “is a Mrs. Hudson in the making,” according to Foss.
“[Conan Doyle]’s clearly thinking about characters who would become major figures,” Lellenberg told Reuters, referring to the Holmes books.