If you’re a budding writer, the chances are that at some point you have heard the axiom “write what you know”. So it’s no surprise that at some point Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presumably heard it too and sat down to write his first novel at the age of 23, saturating it with his opinions in the process. That novel was subsequently lost on the way to the publisher (it remains missing to this day), so he sat down and tried to reconstruct it from memory.
It remains incomplete because the editors have just transcribed it to the page, rather than tried to fill in any gaps themselves (much like Douglas Adams’ The Salmon Of Doubt, in fact), and there are missing sections in addition to crossed-out paragraphs (and in fact, the narrative ends with a note that states that it ends there in mid-page).
This novel has been described as semi-autobiographical, but “93% autobiographical” would have been a better way to put it. The merest appearance of a narrative and the token attempt to create an original character is probably the only thing stopping this book being completely autobiographical. At times, I forgot that the main character, the eponymous John Smith, was supposed to be 50 years of age and afflicted with gout.
It is perhaps a mark of either my respect for Doyle or just his natural skill as a writer that I didn’t find this barefaced expulsion of opinions annoying or grating in the slightest. For instance, when people normally start discourses on why God exists, I normally sigh and say “oh, here we go” (I am well aware that people do the same thing with my atheist writings) but much to my surprise when Doyle did it I found it engaging and a very good analysis of how early religion might have come about. I suspect that it’s the closest I’ve ever come to being converted.
It’s interesting to analyse this in the context of what came after this, as even here you can see Conan Doyle’s style developing into what we expect to read when we pick up a Sherlock Holmes novel. There’s a good doctor to receive the protagonist’s insights of genius and opinions of the world and the novel is written in the style of a journal.
There are also other connections to the Holmes world, with the mention of the man upstairs having been shot in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet (Holmes devotees will recognise that as the way Watson gained his wound before the stories take place). What’s interesting about this is that although the novel was written before the first Holmes stories came out, he went back and rewrote it from memory, and I doubt that bit about the Jezail bullet was in the first version (although it could well have been, we just don’t know). Clearly he liked the device so much he used it three times (the Holmesians among you will get that reference).
The book’s a bit slow going at times but I did enjoy reading it, although I’m a bit biased in that I’m a massive Sherlock Holmes nerd. Of course, as mentioned earlier it does not work as a work of fiction due to the blatant soap-box striding characters and the rambling form of the narrative, which was clearly Doyle just putting in lines that sounded good and anecdotes about his day.
In many respects, the final product reminds me of the excellent Scott Adams’ book God’s Debris, as its two characters who could be considered as representations of the author have arguments with each other, with one eventually being proven right. Both books are short, both hold forth on life, the universe and everything and frankly both are well worth the read.
Although those with no appreciation with Sherlock Holmes or Doyle’s other novels probably won’t enjoy it, my only complaint is that the work is incomplete and ends on a question, something which this review won’t be guilty oPowered by Sidelines