Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock
Holmes, believed that he had finally solved the case of the missing
papers. Over the past two decades, he had been looking for a trove of
letters, diary entries, and manuscripts written by Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle, the creator of Holmes. The archive was estimated to be worth
nearly four million dollars, and was said by some to carry a deadly
curse, like the one in the most famous Holmes story, “The Hound of
The papers had disappeared after Conan Doyle died, in 1930, and without
them no one had been able to write a definitive biography—a task
that Green was determined to complete. Many scholars feared that the
archive had been discarded or destroyed; as the London Times noted, its
whereabouts had become “a mystery as tantalizing as any to unfold
at 221B Baker Street,” the fictional den of Holmes and his
fellow-sleuth, Dr. Watson.
Not long after Green launched his investigation, he discovered that one
of Conan Doyle’s five children, Adrian, had, with the other
heirs’ agreement, stashed the papers in a locked room of a
château that he owned in Switzerland. Green then learned that
Adrian had spirited some of the papers out of the château without
his siblings’ knowledge, hoping to sell them to collectors. In the
midst of this scheme, he died of a heart attack—giving rise to the
legend of the curse. After Adrian’s death, the papers apparently
vanished. And whenever Green tried to probe further he found himself
caught in an impenetrable web of heirs—including a self-styled
Russian princess—who seemed to have deceived and double-crossed
one another in their efforts to control the archive.
For years, Green continued to sort through evidence and interview
relatives, until one day the muddled trail led to London—and the
doorstep of Jean Conan Doyle, the youngest of the author’s
children. Tall and elegant, with silver hair, she was an imposing woman
in her late sixties. (“Something very strong and forceful seems to
be at the back of that wee body,” her father had written of Jean
when she was five. “Her will is tremendous.”) Whereas her
brother Adrian had been kicked out of the British Navy for
insubordination, and her elder brother Denis was a playboy who had sat
out the Second World War in America, she had become an officer in the
Royal Air Force, and was honored, in 1963, as a Dame Commander of the
Order of the British Empire.
She invited Green into her flat, where a portrait of her father, with
his walrus mustache, hung near the fireplace. Green had almost as great
an interest in her father as she did, and she began sharing her
memories, as well as family photographs. She asked him to return, and
one day, Green later told friends, she showed him some boxes that had
been stored in a London solicitor’s office. Peering inside them,
he said, he had glimpsed part of the archive. Dame Jean informed him
that, because of an ongoing family dispute, she couldn’t yet allow
him to read the papers, but she said that she intended to bequeath
nearly all of them to the British Library, so that scholars could
finally examine them. After she died, in 1997, Green eagerly awaited
their transfer—but nothing happened.
Then, in March, 2004, Green opened the London Sunday Times and was
shocked to read that the lost archive had “turned up” at
Christie’s auction house and was to be sold, in May, for millions
of dollars by three of Conan Doyle’s distant relatives; instead of
going to the British Library, the contents would be scattered among
private collectors around the world, who might keep them inaccessible to
scholars. Green was sure that a mistake had been made, and hurried to
Christie’s to inspect the materials. Upon his return, he told
friends that he was certain that many of the papers were the same as
those he had uncovered. What’s more, he alleged, they had been
stolen—and he had proof.
Over the next few days, he approached members of the Sherlock Holmes
Society of London, one of hundreds of fan clubs devoted to the
detective. (Green had once been chairman.) He alerted other so-called
Sherlockians, including various American members of the Baker Street
Irregulars, an invitation-only group that was founded in 1934 and named
after the street urchins Holmes regularly employed to ferret out
information. Green also contacted the more orthodox scholars of Conan
Doyle, or Doyleans, about the sale. (Unlike Green, who moved between the
two camps, many Doyleans distanced themselves from the Sherlockians, who
often treated Holmes as if he were a real detective and refused to
mention Conan Doyle by name.)
Green shared with these scholars what he knew about the archive’s
provenance, revealing what he considered the most damning piece of
evidence: a copy of Dame Jean’s will, which stated, “I give
to The British Library all . . . my late father’s original papers,
personal manuscripts, diaries, engagement books, and writings.”
Determined to block the auction, the makeshift group of amateur sleuths
presented its case to Members of Parliament. Toward the end of the
month, as the group’s campaign intensified and its objections
appeared in the press, Green hinted to his sister, Priscilla West, that
someone was threatening him. Later, he sent her a cryptic note
containing three phone numbers and the message “please keep these
numbers safe.” He also called a reporter from the London Times,
warning that “something” might happen to him.
On the night of Friday, March 26th, he had dinner with a longtime
friend, Lawrence Keen, who later said that Green had confided in him
that “an American was trying to bring him down.” After the
two men left the restaurant, Green told Keen that they were being
followed, and pointed to a car behind them.
The same evening, Priscilla West phoned her brother, and got his
answering machine. She called repeatedly the next morning, but he still
didn’t pick up. Alarmed, she went to his house and knocked on the
door; there was no response. After several more attempts, she called the
police, who came and broke open the entrance. Downstairs, the police
found the body of Green lying on his bed, surrounded by Sherlock Holmes
books and posters, with a cord wrapped around his neck. He had been
“I will lay out the whole case for you,” John Gibson, one of
Green’s closest friends, told me when I phoned him shortly after
learning of Green’s death. Gibson had written several books with
Green, including “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes,” a 1981
collection of parodies and pastiches of the detective stories. With a
slight stammer, Gibson said of his friend’s death,
“It’s a complete and utter mystery.”
Not long after, I travelled to Great Bookham, a village thirty miles
south of London, where Gibson lives. He was waiting for me when I
stepped off the train. He was tall and rail-thin, and everything about
him—narrow shoulders, long face, unruly gray hair—seemed to
slouch forward, as if he were supported by an invisible cane. “I
have a file for you,” he said, as we drove off in his car.
“As you’ll see, there are plenty of clues and not a lot of
He sped through town, past a twelfth-century stone church and a row of
cottages, until he stopped at a red brick house surrounded by hedges.
“You don’t mind dogs, I hope,” he said.
“I’ve two cocker spaniels. I only wanted one but the person
I got them from said that they were inseparable, and so I took them both
and they’ve been fighting ever since.”
When he opened the front door, both spaniels leaped on us, then at each
other. They trailed us into the living room, which was filled with piles
of antique books, some reaching to the ceiling. Among the stacks was a
near-complete set of The Strand Magazine, in which the Holmes stories
were serialized at the turn of the twentieth century; a single issue,
which used to sell for half a shilling, is now worth as much as five
hundred dollars. “Altogether, there must be about sixty thousand
books,” Gibson said.
We sat on a couch and he opened his case file, carefully spreading the
pages around him. “All right, dogs. Don’t disturb us,”
he said. He looked up at me. “Now I’ll tell you the whole
Gibson said that he had attended the coroner’s inquest and taken
careful notes, and as he spoke he picked up a magnifying glass beside
him and peered through it at several crumpled pieces of paper. “I
write everything on scraps,” he said. The police, he said, had
found only a few unusual things at the scene. There was the cord around
Green’s neck—a black shoelace. There was a wooden spoon near
his hand, and several stuffed animals on the bed. And there was a
partially empty bottle of gin.
The police found no sign of forced entry and assumed that Green had
committed suicide. Yet there was no note, and Sir Colin Berry, the
president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, testified to the
coroner that, in his thirty-year career, he had seen only one suicide by
garroting. “One,” Gibson repeated. Self-garroting is
extremely difficult to do, he explained; people who attempt it typically
pass out before they are asphyxiated. Moreover, in this instance, the
cord was not a thick rope but a shoelace, making the feat even more
Gibson reached into his file and handed me a sheet of paper with numbers
on it. “Take a look,” he said. “My phone
records.” The records showed that he and Green had spoken
repeatedly during the week before his death; if the police had bothered
to obtain Green’s records, Gibson went on, they would no doubt
show that Green had called him only hours before he died. “I was
probably the last person to speak to him,” he said. The police,
however, had never questioned him.
During one of their last conversations about the auction, Gibson
recalled, Green had said he was afraid of something.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Gibson told him.
“No, I’m worried,” Green said.
“What? You fear for your life?”
Gibson said that, at the time, he didn’t take the threat seriously
but advised Green not to answer his door unless he was sure who it was.
Gibson glanced at his notes. There was something else, he said,
something critical. On the eve of his death, he reminded me, Green had
spoken to his friend Keen about an “American” who was trying
to ruin him. The following day, Gibson said, he had called Green’s
house and heard a strange greeting on the answering machine.
“Instead of getting Richard’s voice in this sort of Oxford
accent, which had been on the machine for a decade,” Gibson
recalled, “I got an American voice that said, ‘Sorry, not
available.’ I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I
thought I must’ve dialled the wrong number. So I dialled really
slowly again. I got the American voice. I said, ‘Christ
Gibson said that Green’s sister had heard the same recorded
greeting, which was one reason that she had rushed to his house.
Reaching into his file, Gibson handed me several more documents.
“Make sure you keep them in chronological order,” he said.
There was a copy of Jean Conan Doyle’s will, several newspaper
clippings on the auction, an obituary, and a Christie’s catalogue.
That was pretty much all he had. The police, Gibson said, had not
conducted any forensic tests or looked for fingerprints. And the
coroner—who had once attended a meeting of the Sherlock Holmes
Society to conduct a mock inquest of the murder from a Conan Doyle story
in which a corpse is discovered in a locked room—found himself
stymied. Gibson said that the coroner had noted that there was not
enough evidence to ascertain what had happened, and, as a result, the
official verdict regarding whether Green had killed himself or been
murdered was left open.
Within hours of Green’s death, Sherlockians seized upon the
mystery, as if it were another case in the canon. In a Web chat room,
one person, who called himself “inspector,” wrote, “As
for self-garroting, it is like trying to choke oneself to death by your
own hands.” Others invoked the “curse,” as if only the
supernatural could explain it. Gibson handed me an article from a
British tabloid that was headlined “ ‘curse of conan
doyle’ strikes holmes expert.”
“So what do you think?” Gibson asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
Later, we went through the evidence again. I asked Gibson if he knew
whose phone numbers were on the note that Green had sent to his sister.
Gibson shook his head. “It hadn’t come up at the
inquest,” he said.
“What about the American voice on the answering machine?” I
asked. “Do we know who that is?”
“Unfortunately, not a clue. To me that’s the strangest and
most telling piece of evidence. Did Richard put that on his machine?
What was he trying to tell us? Did the murderer put it there? And, if
so, why would he do that?”
I asked if Green had ever displayed any irrational behavior. “No,
never,” he said. “He was the most levelheaded man I ever
He noted that Priscilla West had testified at the inquest that her
brother had no history of depression. Indeed, Green’s physician
wrote to the court to say that he had not treated Green for any
illnesses for a decade.
“One last question,” I said. “Was anything taken out
of the apartment?”
“Not that we know of. Richard had a valuable collection of
Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle books, and nothing appears to be
As Gibson drove me back to the train station, he said, “Please,
you must stay on the case. The police seem to have let poor Richard
down.” Then he advised, “As Sherlock Holmes says,
‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains,
however improbable, must be the truth.’ ”
Some facts about Richard Green are easy to discern—those which
illuminate the circumstances of his life, rather than the circumstances
of his death. He was born on July 10, 1953; he was the youngest of three
children; his father was Roger Lancelyn Green, a best-selling
children’s author who popularized the Homeric myths and the legend
of King Arthur, and who was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R.
Tolkien; and Richard was raised near Liverpool, on land that had been
given to his ancestors in 1093, and where his family had resided ever
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was the American consul in Liverpool in the
eighteen-fifties, visited the house one summer, and he later described
it in his “English Notebooks”:
We passed through a considerable extent of private road, and finally
drove through a lawn, shaded with trees, and closely shaven, and reached
the door of Poulton Hall. Part of the mansion is three or four hundred
years old. . . . There is [a] curious, old, stately staircase, with a
twisted balustrade, much like that of the old Province House in Boston.
The drawing-room looks like a very handsome modern room, being
beautifully painted, gilded, and paper-hung, with a white-marble fire-
place, and rich furniture; so that the impression is that of newness,
not of age.
By the time Richard was born, however, the Green family was, as one
relative told me, “very English—a big house and no
money.” The curtains were thin, the carpets were threadbare, and a
cold draft often swirled through the corridors.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession" by David Grann. Copyright © 0 by David Grann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.