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The non-fiction I recommend here appears primarily because it is entertaining. While I say this with every non-fiction article, I feel it’s important to emphasize this when the article is about the exposure of a real person’s deceits. I don’t know how accurate the claims are in this article. I don’t know if they’re slanderous or correct. I know nothing about the subject except for what this article tells me.

From an entertainment perspective, though, this is a fascinating piece of detection, a tale of gradually piecing together a decades-wide web of secrecy.

It starts with an anecdote about the time Dickens met Dostoevsky. A letter between them includes Dickens frankly explaining how he perceives his villainous characters. It’s a valuable insight, and has been quoted in a fair number of articles. Except it’s not true. When Dickens and Dostoevsky scholars heard about this, neither camp could find any biographical evidence that the two ever met.

The anecdote was traced to a 2002 article by Stephanie Harvey about nature of Dickens’ villains. The anecdote, supposedly revealed by a Soviet scholar in a Kazahk journal, is casually put at the end to provide evidence for Harvey’s thesis.

The hoax wasn’t clever because it convinced so many Dickens scholars; rather, it was clever for the same reason it convinced them: because it was modest. […] Stephanie Harvey’s article probably would not have been published had it not included the description of the Dostoevsky–Dickens encounter. What else, in truth, would it have had to offer? Stephanie Harvey made sure, if only in passing, that the editors would know – if they didn’t realize it instantly – that she was offering a discovery.

Here’s where the detective work begins. Neither the Soviet scholar nor the Kazahk journal exists. Nor does any biographical information on Harvey. Someone writes to Harvey asking for more information, but she replies that she doesn’t have her notes anymore. Further enquiries are returned with an email that Stephanie Harvey has been in a severe car accident and suffered brain damage.

Naiman’s research is hampered by the fact that ‘Stephanie Harvey’ is not an uncommon name, but he finds another article bearing her name that piques his interest. It compares a short story by Doris Lessing with one by Leo Bellingham, and argues the latter’s superiority. And here is when coincidence raises its lovely head, for Naimain happens to be familiar with a long-forgotten novel of Bellingham’s.

This is enough to make Naiman look closer. Bellingham’s short story does not appear to exist; the place it was supposedly published turns out to be a scientific journal devoted to lactation. There is no bio for Bellingham either. Are these both pseudonyms of the same person? Is it possible to discover the originator? And, because sex seems to always add an extra frisson to these things, what’s with the unusual description of areolae running through these works?

Permit me a tangent. On the streets of Philadelphia, and many other cities in the Americas, there are plaques embedded in the streets that refer to “Clarke’s 2001” and to “resurrect dead on planet Jupiter.” With only the text of the plaques to go on, discovering who did them and why seems like an impossible task. But a documentary came out in 2011, ‘Resurrect Dead’, that not only solved some of the mystery, it did so while making the investigation narratively exciting.

Today’s article does the same. It presents a low-key mystery, one with very few leads. None of those leads produce an answer, just another pseudonym and invented references. It’s the depth of this tangle that makes the article enthralling. There’s something about the fact that these date back to the ‘80s and earlier, and only now is someone stitching together all the clues.

When Dickens met Dostoevsky by Eric Naiman

Availability: free online

Word count: 10,300

First published: The Times Literary Supplement, 10 April 2013 (available here)

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