Do you judge a writer by his greatest works? Or by his weakest ones? Or by some average of his complete oeuvre?
Thankfully, for Arthur Conan Doyle, he will always be known, judged and remembered for creating the immortal Sherlock Holmes.
It won’t surprise anyone if there is some spinning happening right now in Doyle’s grave. Earlier this week, the British Library and the Conan Doyle estate published The Narrative of John Smith, Doyle’s first, unpublished novel written 128 years ago.
Written in 1883, four years before A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes book, Doyle posted the handwritten manuscript of The Narrative to a publisher only to lose it in the post. He then rewrote it again from memory into four notebooks. These notebooks were acquired by the British Library in 2004 as part of a purchase of his private papers for around £1 million.
It is perhaps unfair to judge the book in its current form. There is no saying how much Arthur Conan Doyle lost in his mental reconstruction of the lost original. Perhaps the original version was as good as his best work.
But the novel launched this week certainly is not. Most reviewers, and indeed some of the people involved with the project itself, have been diplomatic in their review of the book’s fictional merit. The Independent said it provided a glimpse into a young writer’s mind, but added that the young Doyle “found the creation of first-rate fiction far from elementary.”
There is, of course, a case for treating The Narrative of John Smith with some mystique. After all it is a “lost” novel, and a previously unknown work by Conan Doyle.
But most of all it should be remembered as the book that could have scuppered Sherlock Holmes’ career. As one member of the estate told the BBC, if the book had been published, it would have been most unfortunate for Arthur Conan Doyle. Assuming that The Narrative would have flopped, would the setback have permanently demoralised Conan Doyle? Would he have recovered to create Holmes?
We are thankful the book has been found now. But we are even more thankful that it was lost then.
How will the creator of Sherlock Holmes be remembered? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org