A small, black, hardback book, with gold lettering and creamy-white pages.
It could be a pocket-book or a diary, and it could be an eminently suitable place to make a record of events to be set aside for some future date when the truth may, finally, be told.
And that is just what this book is. It is the testimony of Bertram Fletcher Robinson, making clear his role in the creation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I hadn’t heard of Bertram Fletcher Robinson before I spotted this book, but I was quickly intrigued. What was his role?
Doyle acknowledged Robinson when the first installment of The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in the Strand magazine:
” This story owes its inception to my friend, Mr Fletcher Robinson, who has helped me both in the local plot and in the local details.”
The Bookseller magazine was sure that Robinson’s contribution had been even greater:
“Everyone who read the opening chapter of the resuscitation of Sherlock Holmes in the September number of the Strand magazine must have come to the conclusion that Mr Doyle’s share in the collaboration was a very small one … We have very little hesitation in expressing our conviction that the story is almost entirely Mr Robinson’s and that Mr Doyle’s only important contribution is the permission to use the character of Sherlock Holmes.”
But Doyle’s son and literary executor, claimed that Robinson’s contribution was insignificant:
“Robinson played no part whatever in the writing of the Hound. he refused my father’s offer to collaborate and retired at an early stage of the process.”
And so we have conflicting claims. Where does the truth lie?
John O’Connell’s novel provides an audacious answer, in a novel purporting to be a document put away by Robinson.
Robinson, a journalist, meets the famous writer when they are both travelling by boat, from South Africa to England. Each knows the others work, and so they become travelling companions.
And Robinson aspires to write crime fiction. He tells Doyle some of his ideas, and is stunned when Doyle offers to buy one of them. Robinson’s confidence grows.
The two men continue their acquaintance back in London, and in time Doyle suggests a visit to Robinson’s family home on Dartmoor to work together on a new book …
The style was plain, but everything was clear and everything rang true. I found it easy to believe that I was reading the words of Robinson the journalist.
On Dartmoor the story darkened. Doyle behaved strangely. Robinson was unsettled. And I began to wonder just how reliable his account was.
The wheels were in motion and a chain of events, events that chimed well with Doyle’s novel and his life, lead to a dark denouement.
The final chapters really are the highpoint of the book. They are so cleverly constructed it is, they play wonderfully with the conventions of the gothic mystery, and they left me very unsettled.
The author wrapped his story around the known facts very well, and then he provides a useful explanation of where known facts end and fiction begins in an afterword.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by his account, and I’m not sure that it answers all of the questions that were raised, but it was a lovely dark entertainment for an autumn evening.
And now my curiosity is piqued. I am eager to reread The Hound of The Baskervilles, to compare it with other stories of Sherlock Holmes, and to learn more about its author.
Or authors …