Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Lost Special by Arthur Conan Doyle

A train leaves the station, but vanishes before reaching the next stop. With no forks in the tracks or possible places to hide, the disappearance seems impossible...

Source: Waterstones

Originally published in Doyle's Tales of Terror and Mystery, The Lost Special follows the confession of Herbert de Lernac as he recites the details of his masterful plan. The story features an implied cameo by Sherlock Holmes (no name is mentioned, but an "amateur reasoner" writes "It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must contain the truth").

The short story was also recently adapted in the BBC series Sherlock, with the titular character investigating the disappearance of a London tube carriage.

The Lost Special

The short story is available in its entirety for free at Project Gutenberg or East of the Web. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Date: 1898
Word Count: 7,000 (about 28 pages)


The concept of The Lost Special is a strong one - a train vanishes on a straight line with no rational explanation. A similar setup was used by Jacques Futrelle in his 1907 short story The Phantom Motor (available here). Unfortunately for Doyle, Futrelle's solution offers a much more unusual and satisfying resolution.

The Lost Special's primary weakness is its deviation from its premise. We soon learn that the track did indeed have potential forks - several in fact - and the solution requires very little ingenuity from the culprit. By revealing almost the entire plot through the confession of the architect, Doyle also removes much of the mystery, leaving a story that is heavy on dialogue and light on action.

The small cameo from Holmes (in addition to the implied scheming of Moriarty) provides a nice nod to fans of the canon, but cannot elevate the story enough for it to be considered one of Doyle's finest. While the premise holds a great deal of promise, the story doesn't manage to live up to the expectations it sets for itself.

4/10 - A disappointing solution weakens an otherwise solid story.


  1. It may not have been his best, but "The Lost Special" has been evergreen, inspiring adaptations thru the years under the same and other names. The original is a riot as the enormity of the plot slowly unfolds in the description; if you're not LOL by its climax, you mustn't've been in the right mood for reading.

    Apparently the story was inspired by a real event: the loss of locomotive 115 on Sept. 22, 1892 into a sink hole in that geographic area. That connection was reflected as the mysterious loss of airliner 815 on Sept. 22, 2004 in one of the adaptations of "The Lost Special",titled simply "Lost".

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