First aired on As It Happens (7/6/11)
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was 23 years old, he wrote a book. He sent the manuscript off in the mail and didn't hear anything from publishers. Ever. According to the postal service, this package didn't exist. Conan Doyle attempted to rewrite the story from memory, but later abandoned the project — and fans of the Sherlock Holmes creator never knew of the story's existence.
The Narrative of John Smith is Conan Doyle's debut novel. Written around 1883, it introduces readers to John Smith, a 50-year-old "opinionated Everyman." The book consists of Smith's rants on everything from war to literature, and a collection of conversations with a diverse array of people who visit him. There is a brief mention of the debut novel in Conan Doyle's autobiography, but no mention of his attempt to re-create the work. However, the British Library got hold of the manuscript after some of Conan Doyle's possessions were auctioned off at Christie's.
Conan Doyle had yet to create Sherlock Holmes at the time he wrote The Narrative of John Smith, but fans of his work can see the early signs of Doyle's talent and creativity. "You can see in this book...some of the seeds and some of the ideas that would go into creating Sherlock Holmes, which happened only a few years later," Daniel Stashower, one of the book's editors, told As It Happens host Carol Off in a recent interview.
And it wasn't just the writing style that found its way into Holmes's world. Variations on characters in The Narrative of John Smith (a kindly landlady, an injured and grumpy guest) appear in Sherlock Holmes. According to Stashower, "he uses scenes from John Smith and translated them whole into later works."
Stashower is confident that fans of Conan Doyle will enjoy the book, even though it's his first novel and remains unfinished. "Conan Doyle is always lively and always interesting," he said. "It has all the energy and ideas that distinguish his later work."
The Narrative of John Smith
Arthur Conan Doyle
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"Before there was the astute detective Sherlock Holmes and his capable compatriot Watson, there was the opinionated Everyman John Smith. In 1883, when he was just twenty-three, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Narrative of John Smith while he was living in Portsmouth and struggling to establish himself as both a doctor and a writer. ... Conan Doyle knew that in order to truly establish his name as a writer, he would have to write a novel. That novel — the first he ever wrote and only now published for the first time — is The Narrative of John Smith. ..."
Read more at The British Library.