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I came across the claim that sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't write the Sherlock Holmes stories and probably just, at most, edited them.

Normally such a claim would not be taken seriously. But the person who made the suggestion was Martin Gardner, an hero to many skeptics and a debunker of many ideas in pseudoscience and the paranormal. For those who are too young to remember him, he was the author of the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American for several decades and a leading skeptic and science writer (see bio here).

In an essay included in his book Science Good, Bad and Bogus published in 1981 he argues that the rational and scientific character of Holmes could not have been produced by a character like Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a credulous believer in spriritualism and fairies and a careless observer of psychic demonstrations. He was such a believer that he refused to believe that Houdini was performing tricks and not real magic even after Houdini denied being a psychic.

I doubt Gardner's argument as it seems to be based purely on what someone is capable of imagining. So my question is is there any other reason to doubt that he wrote the stories and invented the character?

  • The essay is titled "The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle", but I can't find a copy of it on the internet. – Joel Rein Oct 18 '11 at 22:36
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    The books themselves say in black and white that they were written by Dr Watson, and anything a Sherlock Holmes book says can be taken on trust to be true. – Henry Oct 19 '11 at 1:12
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    Do you (or does he) have any evidence whatsoever for his assertion (and no, his reasoning doesn't make for evidence)? If not, it's effectively discredited automatically. According to his reasoning Tolkien can't have written the Lord of the Rings as he was a scientists and the LoTR is fiction... – jwenting Oct 19 '11 at 7:42
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    So the arguement is that this guy can not imagine that the other guy could imagine a fictional character... – Chad Oct 19 '11 at 20:45
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    Let's not forget that Conan-Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes the character, or came to hate him, to the point of killing him off. That's plausible behaviour for someone writing a character whose philosophy he disagreed with. – DJClayworth Oct 20 '11 at 18:58
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I think Gardner's argument doesn't make much sense:

  1. A. Conan Doyle did not invent detective stories or the super-rational detective character, see Dupin in Murders in the Rue Morgue by E. A. Poe. source

  2. We have Doyle's handwritten manuscripts, letters, biographies. There is no real contempt that he is the author. source

  3. The whole argument is preposterous. Carl Sagan wrote a successful fiction book about aliens, being a skeptic. Why can't a non-skeptic write a book about a rationalist? source

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    I mostly agree. Not sure that the carl sagan reference reinforces the argument, though. His protagonist in Contact, Ellie Arroway, was the epitome of rationality (not in the movie, though, which made her out to be some mush headed romantic destroying much of what made the book great). On the other hand Sagan was able to create a sympathetic portrait of a conservative religious leader with convictions and attitudes the opposite of his own rationalist beliefs. – matt_black Oct 19 '11 at 10:31
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    L Ron Hubbard wrote a book about how he could create a crazy fictional religion and people would flock to it. They he had an epiphany and realized the truth that is Scientology. – Chad Oct 19 '11 at 20:47
  • The more often I read this answer, the less convincing it is. OK, point 2 may be definitive. Points 1 and 3 are irrelevant. Point 1 isn’t even contested. Point 3 addresses a fundamentally different (preposterous) claim. Doyle may have written a character which he was not sympathetic to. But a character essentially dismantling Doyle’s core beliefs? Much harder to swallow. Even point 2 doesn’t make it impossible that Doyle’s merely edited somebody else’s brainchild. I do not believe this but I can definitely see why intelligent people would, and I don’t think points 1 & 3 address this. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 2 '12 at 21:53
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    @KonradRudolph Point 1 and 3 address the argument as presented by the OP - I can do no better than address the argument as presented! Point 2 presents the expert consensus as supported by the accepted literary/historical evidence which must be taken as the correct history unless there is contrary proof. If anyone, including Gardner, wants to propose a different theory, then the burden of proof is on them. It's quite easy to prove that Conan Doyle was not the author (via, say, a dated registered letter). No such proof has been presented by Gardner so his argument is unsustainable. – Sklivvz Jan 2 '12 at 23:16
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    Besides that, my job is to present the available evidence, which in this case points to Gardner being wrong, not to convince the reader that I am right. I don't have a position, literary historians do. – Sklivvz Jan 2 '12 at 23:18
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This exact question, of Martin Gardner's article about Conan Doyle, is addressed (definitively!) by Raymond Smullyan in his piece "Ambrose, Gardner and Doyle", which is part of the "proceedings" of the recent Gathering For Gardner (G4G9, 2010).

It's a very short and amusing "play" which is worth reading in the original, but anyone who is impatient can skip to the section on the last page, called "Discussion".

Spoiler:

It's a hoax by Gardner, and he said so himself to Smullyan.

  • Great find. It could also be a spoof, though (or does this lead to some sort of meta-spoof infinite regression?) – matt_black Jan 2 '12 at 22:26
  • @matt_black: That is exactly the point of Smullyan's article. :-) – ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '12 at 2:09
  • Now we have Smullyans assertion, without proof, that Gardner admitted a hoax to him in a personal communication, which nobody can check. I doubt that an intelligent man like Smullyan would have presented such flawed evidence. The play’s discussion must be a fake. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 3 '12 at 10:05
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    @KonradRudolph: Yes, you get the idea. :-) (The next step is for someone to allude to your history of intelligent posts on Stack Exchange...) – ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '12 at 10:53
  • This also reminds me of Godel Escher Bach (the chapter that "fools" the reader by signalling that it is over because it is full of unusual typos and situation). I will need to speak about this with that good friend of mine, the Tortoise. – Francesco Feb 27 '12 at 11:03

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