Portsmouth, England, in the 1880s. A 23-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle is working as a doctor but needs to make more money to help support his mother, his alcoholic father and his young brother. He begins scribbling short stories in the hopes of supplementing his income by selling them to magazines. He was successful, too. Successful enough that he tried his hand at a longer work. We know, of course, how all of that turned out. However, his first attempt, The Narrative of John Smith, wasn’t terribly good. As the Independent explains, Conan Doyle probably wouldn’t be very happy to learn that, this week, the British Library, who bought the lost manuscript as part of package of the late author’s papers for one million pounds back in 2004, is publishing the book:
Many years after writing The Narrative, Conan Doyle said that he would be horrified if the book ever appeared in print. But academics have defended the publication because of its contribution to understanding his later work. “This book gives us a unique insight into the developing creative mind of the writer,” says Rachel Foss, one of the book’s editors. “This is his first attempt to make the transition from a short-story writer to a novel writer.”
Even if it’s not terribly good, Sherlock Holmes fans will probably be lining up to read the book. This is, after all, the real and original deal:
Although the novel suffers from a lack of plot, it does conjure a world of boarding houses and pipe-smoking, which fans of Sherlock Holmes will recognise. Conan Doyle called it a novel with a “personal-social-political complexion” and it hints at themes that would appear in the Holmes books, such as an interest in logical reasoning.
An introduction to the new edition says: “The Narrative is not successful fiction, 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, Sherlock Holmes.”