If the reclusive, controlling, JD Salinger had not died three years ago, inevitably he would be suspected as the source of the leak of three short stories, including an early version of The Catcher in the Rye, which he had ordered not to be published until decades after his death.
Salinger's life and work have been wreathed in conspiracy theories, fanned by the temperament of the man himself, including assertions that his greatest masterpieces were being written during the silent years, and that a safe – or an entire room – full of unpublished treasure would one day be discovered. A recent biography claimed that the author had planned the phased release of a string of works.
Now, apparently accurate transcripts of three stories, whose original manuscripts are kept under lock and key in university libraries, have escaped into the world.
In a particularly Salingerish touch, the source appears to be a scan of a pirate edition of the texts with a title page bearing the brain-twisting words: "The three stories in this book remain unpublished and locked by JD Salinger for publishing."
The copy, said to be one of 25 printed in London in 1999, was apparently sold on eBay in September by a seller listed as seymourstainglass, with an address in Brentford, west London. It sold for a mere £67.50, considerably less than a first edition of The Catcher in decent condition.
The scans were posted on a members' only site, called What.cd. The site later took the post down, but by then the stories were being commented on and copied across other sites, including Reddit.
These three stories were not unknown unknowns; Salinger scholars knew of their existence, but the terms on which the world at large would ever see them were sternly laid down by the author.
The stories include An Ocean Full of Bowling Balls, which has only been available under lock and key to scholars at Princeton library.
The tale is an early version, originally written for Harper's Bazaar magazine but withdrawn before publication, of The Catcher in the Rye. The narrator is the older brother of Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator of the later book.
The terms attached to the donated work were precise: the story was not to be published until 27 January 2060, half a century after Salinger's death in 2010.
The other stories, entitled Paula, and Birthday Boy, were held by the University of Texas under similar conditions.
Kenneth Slawenski, a Salinger scholar and biographer, who has read the stories in the university libraries, told the website BuzzFeed that the text appeared accurate. "While I do quibble with the ethics (or lack of ethics) in posting the Salinger stories, they look to be true transcripts of the originals and match my own copies."
PJ Vogt, a Salinger fan and radio producer, said the text of An Ocean Full of Bowling Balls appeared accurate but the scan was not a copy of the Princeton manuscript. "When I finally read it I was just convinced it was the best story I'd ever read," he added.
A Princeton University spokesman said: "The story is probably an unauthorised version transcribed longhand in our reading room. It's also possible that it came from photocopies of the typescript probably made before the mid 1980s when we decided we'd no longer allow photo-duplication for any work by Salinger."
Salinger, born in New York in 1919, was apparently traumatised by the wildfire success of the Catcher, a classic of teenage angst, which regularly tops lists of favourite and most influential books, and which has never been out of print.
He increasingly withdrew from public view, staying at the New Hampshire village of Cornish where shopkeepers delighted in misdirecting literary pilgrims. He took back some stories already offered to magazines, and published less and less, until, as far as the world understood, he stopped writing in 1965.
Further glimpses were afforded by his efforts to squash various memoirs, including the 1972 account, and the auction of letters by Joyce Maynard, telling of their nine-month affair when she was 18 and he was 53. There was also legal action against a proposed unauthorised sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.
A biography by David Shields and Shane Salemo claims Salinger completed a string of works, including autobiographical material and stories, for which he planned a release over the coming decades.
Fans are split between those eager to get at every unpublished word, and those respectful of their eccentric hero's determination to control his literary legacy from beyond the grave.
Dead Caulfields, a J D Salinger fan site goes into the unpublished stories in depth, but notes: "We are respectfully aware of the author's privacy … while walking on eggshells, it is our attempt to shed as much light as possible on these stories without overstepping either legal or moral bounds."
The scans posted to What.cd, then removed by the site, prompted the website to state: "Due to this case's rare and unlikely circumstances, due to the unnecessary and unwanted attention the Salinger leak has brought, and due to our desire to comply with the desires of the Salinger estate or other involved parties in this matter, the content has been removed … It is not to be re-uploaded under any circumstances, and anyone found doing so will have their account disabled." Salinger could hardly have put it better.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Kate Ter Haar