Monday, July 5, 2010

Death of a Holmes Scholar

So, a while back I skimmed an article about the strange death of Richard Lancelyn Green, best known to Tolkien scholars as having been the son (and near-namesake) of Roger Lancelyn Green, a younger friend of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis's (and even an occasional visitor to the Eagle-&-Child meetings of the Inklings) and eventually Lewis's biographer. Just as his father had been an expert in nineteenth century children's authors such as Andrew Lang and George MacDonald, the younger Green was a renowned Conan Doyle expert, who for years had been at work researching what he hoped wd be a definitive three-volume biography of Sherlock Holmes' creator. All of which made his death in mysterious circumstances seem all the odder.

Then, a month or two ago, I spotted a book at the Borders in Federal Way with the odd title THE DEVIL AND SHERLOCK HOLMES: TALES OF MURDER, MADNESS, AND OBSESSION by David Grann. It looks to be a pretty interesting collection,* but since I was only really interested in one essay I put in a request for it at the library and got in the queue. It's now come and I've had a chance to read the full essay and reflect on it, and all I can say is that it leaves one with the impression that Doyle scholars seems to have the same problems distinguishing between reality and flights of fancy as Doyle himself did.

The main issue comes down to whether Green was murdered, as several of his fellow Holmes scholars believe, or committed suicide, as his family and the police concluded. It's a strange tale, but an interesting one about how scholars interested in a particular author become friends, collaborate, quarrel, become rivals, &c. One of the piece's oddities is referring to one Holmes scholar, who asked not to be identified (and who is described in sinister terms by the more conspiracy-minded of Green's English friends), as "The American". In fact, a few minutes with and google reveals his name to be Jon L. Lellenberg, for years the editor of the BAKER STREET IRREGULARS' journal and the group's historian, as well as the Doyle estate's American agent. Lellenberg's most interesting book looks to be THE QUEST FOR SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THIRTEEN BIOGRAPHERS IN SEARCH OF A LIFE, which he edited and which includes not just a foreword by Doyle's daughter but two essays by his friend Green.

It all came down in the end to greed -- not monetary, but for access to unpublished manuscripts (a hot-button topic for all scholars, whatever author they devote themselves to). Green knew Doyle's last surviving daughter, with whom he'd once been friendly but long since had a falling out** (and, hence, also a falling out with Lellenberg, since he was associated with the estate), had a lot of family papers which she'd at one time intended to will to the British Library. When he heard after her death that the papers were to be auctioned off, and hence probably go to libraries and private collectors in America, he tried to block the sale with accusations of wrong-doing somewhere behind the scene if not outright theft and, according to the conspiracy-minded, was murdered so that the sale could go through. Or, alternatively, as the owner of the largest private Doyle collection in England, he wasn't able to face the fact that he'd never be able to plumb the depths of those papers before they were scattered to the four winds, and killed himself when he realized he'd never be able to finish his life's work.

Except that it turns out he was wrong. That Doyle's daughter divided the papers with some other relatives, and it was these grand-nephews of the author who were selling off their stuff, while all the most important material she'd kept for herself she did leave to the British Library, where it is today. So there was actually no reason for anybody to murder him, and he'd have been able to continue his life-long researching of the biography after all, which removes the impetus for suicide -- if he'd only known that, or been willing to believe it. A sad story, and an interesting object lesson for literary obsession.***

--John R.

--current book: SHE AND ALLAN
--cuurent audiobook: ROVERANDOM, read by Derek Jacobi.

My wife's comment, after reading this post: POT. KETTLE. BLACK!

*for example, the second essay details the well-documented case of an innocent man executed in Texas in 2004; another recounts a survivor of 9/11 suffering from trauma-induced amnesia trying to reconstruct his movements that day.
**apparently she objected to his dismissive attitude towards some of Doyle's loonier enthusiasms near the end of his life.
***destructive obsession seems to be a theme in David Grann's work, based on the only other book of his I've read, THE LOST CITY OF Z.

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