The Mysterious Death of a Sherlock Holmes Scholar
A renowned expert on Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional sleuth was himself at the center of a bizarre detective tale. The original article I wrote can be found here.
British-born Richard Lancelyn Green became obsessed with Sherlock Holmes at a very young age, at one point even building a replica of Holmes’s apartment in the attic of his family’s rambling mansion. When he grew to adulthood, his obsession blossomed, encompassing not only the famous fictional detective, but also the man who had created him, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Green amassed a huge collection of Holmes and Doyle memorabilia, and was planning to write the ultimate biography of the beloved author by gaining access to Doyle’s private papers. But it was during this quest that he turned up dead, and to this day no one is certain whether his death was an elaborately staged suicide or a devious murder plot worthy of the evil Moriarty.
Dame Jean and Doyle’s Private Papers
Green, a well-regarded scholar and author of several books of Sherlock Holmes lore, befriended Dame Jean Conan Doyle in the mid-1990s; she was the author’s only daughter, though he also had four sons. At some point during their friendship, Dame Jean evidently trusted Green enough to show him a collection of her father’s papers, which up until then had been believed lost.
Green was ecstatic that the papers were safe and sound, and became even more so when Dame Jean told him that she was planning to donate the papers to the British Library after her death so that scholars would be able to have access to them for the first time. Green felt that these papers would be crucial to the success of the definitive biography of Doyle he planned on writing.
An Unwelcome Auction
Dame Jean died in 1997, and Green began looking forward to poring through the papers when they arrived at the British Library. But years passed, and then, in 2004, some of the same papers turned up in an auction at Christie’s in London.
Fearful that the papers would be dispersed into private hands, Green and a few other Holmes scholars tried to block the auction, claiming that the distant Doyle relations who were auctioning off the papers had no legal right to them, since Dame Jean had supposedly left the papers to the British Library in her will.
A Mysterious American
It was around this time that Green’s friends began to notice that Green’s behavior was becoming paranoid and a little irrational. He claimed he was being followed, that his phone had been bugged, and that an American was trying to “bring him down.” He even told at least one friend that he feared for his life. He became convinced that his actions to block the auction of the Doyle papers had made someone angry enough to kill him.
A Very Sherlockian Puzzle
It seemed as if Green’s paranoia was justified, for on March 27, 2004, he was found face down on his bed, a crude garrotte made out of a black shoelace fastened around his neck. A wooden spoon lay near his hand, and his dead body was surrounded by books, posters, and other Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.
The greeting message on his answering machine had also been replaced with a terse message in an American voice. It appeared that there was no forced entry, and nothing seemed to have been stolen. An investigation yielded little evidence to distinguish between murder and suicide, and the coroner left the verdict open on cause of death.
Murder or Suicide?
Several facts emerged later on that could shed more light on what happened to Richard Lancelyn Green. The American voice on his answering machine turned out to be the standard recorded message that came pre-loaded on the machine, and the American that Green claimed was trying to “bring him down” was simply another Holmes scholar who claimed to bear Green no ill will.
Additionally, the presence of the wooden spoon at the scene would seem to suggest suicide. Green might have used the spoon to tighten the garrotte, whereas a murderer could have just tightened it with his hands. There was also the matter of a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” in which a woman commits suicide in a way that makes it look as though she was murdered by a rival. Friends speculate that Green might have become irrational and sought to frame someone he felt was undermining him.
And the auction of the Doyle papers, as it turned out, was perfectly legal; Dame Jean had changed her will to leave the papers to three of her sister-in-law’s children, who then decided to auction the papers. In the end, most of the papers ended up in the British Library after all. Green’s own enormous collection was eventually bequeathed to the Portsmouth Library Service.
Grann, David (2010). The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession. Doubleday. ISBN: 9780385517928.