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Bizarre death surrounds Conan Doyle auction

Sherlock Holmes scholar founded garroted with a shoelace tightened by a wooden spoon.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts got a rare glimpse into the private world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as thousands of personal papers — from his passport to his jotted-down story ideas — went on display Friday.

At the same time, the archive has become entwined in a mystery worthy of Conan Doyle’s celebrated fictional detective: the bizarre death of a leading Holmes scholar.

The papers are to be auctioned off Wednesday, perhaps to disappear again into the obscurity of private ownership, a fate that had obsessed Richard Lancelyn Green, a former chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.

Green, 50, was found dead in his bed on March 27, garroted with a shoelace tightened by a wooden spoon, and surrounded by stuffed toys.

At an inquest last month, Coroner Paul Knapman said suicide was the most likely explanation, but he acknowledged there was no note, that garroting was a painful way to kill oneself, and that it therefore had been a “very unusual death.” He said the deceased had been acting paranoid, but that people assumed it was baseless.

Family and friends said Lancelyn Green had become fixated on the Conan Doyle archive, believing it should be available to students and scholars, not sold and dispersed.

“He might have been in the prime position to write the definitive biography of Conan Doyle,” said his friend, Nicholas Utechin, editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal.

An author and his craftThe items for sale are displayed at Christie’s auction house and viewable on the Internet.

The notebooks provide a fascinating picture of how one of history’s most successful authors practiced his craft. They contain Conan Doyle’s story ideas and research notes, as well as rough scenarios of how plots might unfold.

They are a reminder, too, that although Sherlock Holmes was Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, he wrote with great success of Professor Challenger in “The Lost World,” of a cavalryman in Napoleon’s army with “The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard,” and of medieval history in “The White Company.”

Other items provide intimate glimpses of a man who dearly loved his family — his well-worn wallet contains fond birthday letters from his children and a creased photo of a son who died.

Affectionate letters to his wife, Jean, are addressed to “My own sweet love,” and “You dear little angel.”

Up for auction are about 25 to 30 percent of the papers that would have been in Conan Doyle’s study when he died in 1930, said Tom Lamb, head of Christie’s books and manuscripts department. He said family members had been selling items over the years.

An expert in crisisThe auction is a great disappointment to scholars who hoped the papers would be donated to a public institution.

Lancelyn Green, co-author of an important bibliography of the author, was most deeply affected.

“He did become sadly obsessive about this matter in the weeks leading towards his death,” Utechin told BBC radio on Thursday. He was “quite clearly very perturbed indeed about the sale of these items at Christie’s.”

At Lancelyn Green’s inquest, his sister, Priscilla Lancelyn West, said “something about this sale was worrying him enormously, and I tried to get him to explain to me what it was.”

His cryptic comments, she said, sounded like “the beginning of a thriller novel.”

At Christie’s, Lamb said the auction house had consulted Lancelyn Green as an expert and “he was very happy to help us.” In fact, eight of the photographs that illustrate the sale catalogue are “by courtesy of Richard Lancelyn Green.”

The auctioneer expects the sale will earn about $3.5 million for the beneficiaries of the author’s daughter-in-law, Anna Conan Doyle.

In the 1940s and 1960s, two Conan Doyle scholars had access to the papers, but after the death in 1970 of the author’s son Adrian, court battles broke out over the estate, and the collection was locked up in a lawyer’s office for about 25 years.

Sir Christopher Frayling, head of the Arts Council, which allocates government arts funding, called the papers “a vast piece of English heritage” that should be kept together for future scholars.

“If this was Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, there would be a national outcry,” he told BBC Radio.

Lamb said the estimated 3,000 papers have been divided in ways designed to encourage institutional buying.

“There are whole lots devoted to particular causes and interests of Conan Doyle, such as all the Boer War material in one large box,” he said.