A man named Walter Elliot — an historian, writer, broadcaster, and amateur ethnographer of the Scottish border — has discovered a 1903 pamphlet with an unsigned contribution that is, maybe, a rediscovered Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I say “maybe” because it probably isn’t.
Elliot, the author of The New Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 1805-2005, discovered the pamphlet that had been in his attic “for 40 or 50 years” with a painting of an old wooden bridge that had been washed away by a flood in 1902.
The story — “Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, By Deduction, the Brig Bazaar” — is a mere 1,300 words long. And it was included as a part of a pamphlet published in order to raise money for the restoration of a local bridge in Selkirk, where Elliot lives. The creator of Sherlock Holmes was a frequent guest of the area, where he vacationed and played cricket. The Holmes story featured in “The Book O’ the Brig” — that’s the name of the pamphlet — was part of a collection of local writing published in a “three-day fund-raising bazaar.” Doyle was the bazaar’s guest of honor.
A plotless, metafictional dialogue filtered through the mind of an unnamed journalist, the story begins with a request from the editor — of the “Bazaar Book” itself — to feature Sherlock Holmes in the pamphlet. The journalist gently mocks the editor for his self-assurance in requesting Holmes, whose name he puts in quotations — as if he is more idea than man:
‘We’ve had enough of old romancists and the men of travel, said the Editor, as he blue-pencilled his copy, and made arrangements for the great Saturday edition of the Bazaar Book. ‘We want something up-to-date. Why not have a word from “Sherlock Holmes”?’
Editors have only to speak and it is done, at least, they think so. ‘Sherlock Holmes!’ As well talk of interviewing the Man in the Moon. But it does not do to tell Editors all that you think. I had no objections whatever, I assured the Editor, to buttonhole ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ but to do so I should have to go to London.
From there the journalist is dispatched to entreaty Holmes for his inclusion, but before he can leave he is treated, by the editor, with still more flights of metafictional lunacy. “And are you not aware,” the Editor says, “that all journalists are supposed to be qualified members of the Institute of Fiction, and to be qualified to make use of the Faculty of Imagination?” This line by itself is a major tell, one that implies the author is operating by sleight of hand. But the giveaway, I think, comes next. When the journalist arrives in London, he confesses:
The familiar house in Sloan Street met my bewildered gaze. The door was shut, the blinds drawn. I entered; doors are no barrier to one who uses the Faculty of Imagination.
Did the journalist even go to London? Now we have two hints that this is both a fiction and a fictional metafiction. Even the journalist is “making up” his meeting with Holmes and Watson. He uses the “Faculty of Imagination” to “enter” the room where they are talking. Then, more metafictional hilarity: Holmes is called a “Free trader” moments before he uses the word “capital.”
The fact that Watson and Holmes are given these political positions — free trade versus protectionism — coupled with the observation that the rest of the dialogue between the two becomes a thinly veiled political debate on these themes… well, it just doesn’t seem like something the author of Sherlock Holmes would do. And, anyway, the final paragraph contains another hint.
‘Well, goodbye, Watson; shall be glad of your company after Saturday. Remember Horatius’ words when you go to Border Burghs :- “How can man die better than facing fearful odds.” But there, these words are only illustrations. Safe journey, and success to the Brig!’
“These words are only illustrations.” Given that this Holmes story is one of three “fictional interviews” featured in the pamphlet, it’s more likely it was written for the guest of honor than by the guest of honor. And the metafictional hints, for me, seal it. Although I suppose it’s possible that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was just having a good time…