On March 27th 2004, the body of Richard Lancelyn Green was discovered face down on the bed of his London apartment, it appeared on inspection he had been garrotted with a shoelace that had been tightened by a wooden spoon, which immediately pointed to an act of murder. What made this incident all the more suspicious, was that in the weeks leading up to his death Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes and the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, had found himself wrapped up in a mysterious set of circumstances that could have come straight from one of Conan Doyle’s novels. It’s a mystery that Sherlock Holmes himself would have had trouble piecing together.
Richard Lancelyn Green was born in Cheshire in the North West of England in 1953. From the age of 7 he began collecting memorabilia relating to anything Sherlock Holmes, and at the time of his death he undoubtedly resided over the largest private Conan Doyle inspired collection in the world, that included first edition books, film artefacts, he even recreated the famous Baker St study in his attic. Having taken English at Oxford he was indeed an accomplished author in his own right, and after gaining his degree he became a prolific traveller with a thirst for knowledge, and much like his deerstalker sporting hero, for facts.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Sherlock Holmes – A Scandal in Bohemia
Having had numerous books published, Green’s life’s work was to be a biographical account of Arthur Conan Doyle which remained unfinished at the time of his death. There had been numerous biographers of Conan Doyle over the years, something which had reportedly caused fractious relationships with two of Doyle’s children Adrian and Denis, being wealthy heirs they typically lived the playboy lifestyle. However it was with Doyle’s third child Dame Jean Bromet with whom Green had become incredibly close and through her own archives accrued the most significant of his research.
It had been announced that on the 19th May 2004 Christie’s Auction House would be selling off ‘The Conan Doyle Collection,’ an event that would ultimately become the central talking point regarding the untimely death of Richard Lancelyn Green. On the one hand Green was outraged that this rich archive was to be sold off, primarily expected to go to American bidders, when in fact it should, according to Green’s knowledge be handed over to the British library, he was certain many of the papers in the collection were the same as those he had uncovered, and that in fact they were stolen, something he felt he could prove. On the other hand he was extremely distressed at the prospect of such a significant collection of documents, letters and musings being dispersed to numerous private buyers and therefore virtually impossible to keep record of.
Green set about putting a stop to the auction, pleading with Christie’s to call it off before challenging the credibility of the will from which the papers had been left. The collection belonged to the widow of Doyle’s son Adrian, and according to Green they should have in fact been bequeathed to his daughter, Green’s long term friend Dame Jean, who had instructed all her own Doyleiana possessions be handed over to the British Library. Green tried in vain to prove the issue but ultimately failed to produce any evidence to the contrary.
It troubled him deeply until his last breath, however while this would appear to suggest that Green had possibly become so distressed by the auction, which greatly endangered his biography, something he intended to be the ultimate account of Arthur Conan Doyle, that he in turn decided to take his own life. A confusing counter theory came to light after Green’s sister Priscilla West described her brother’s concerns leading up to his death. In numerous conversations with West it was reported at the time that Green claimed he was being followed by an American and that his house was bugged. West did note that her brother had become extremely erratic and he was displaying paranoid and delusional behaviour, hence her decision to go to his apartment the morning after his death to check on his well being.
There is also the matter of the garrotting, surely an improbable way to take one’s life. Green was also by all accounts an incredibly organised man, and devoted to his family. Therefore it would seem strange that someone who had never suffered any depression or mental health issues would firstly kill himself and secondly fail to leave a note, or some form of explanation. However there were no signs of forced entry and the near empty bottle of gin beside the bed, after a large consumption of wine with his evening meal both pointed to the possibility that Green was heavily intoxicated on the evening in question.
His then boyfriend who was with him at that very meal claims the two returned to Green’s flat in Kensington for coffee, not offering any indication of the instability that might lead to the events that transpired. In a detailed report by The New Yorker, another scholar who had worked with Green to stop the auction, Owen Dudley Edwards, had little doubt that it was murder, citing Green as “the biggest figure standing in the way” of the sale at Christies.
Could it also be that in a manner accustomed to one of Doyle’s famed novels, Richard Lancelyn Green so incandescent at the prospect of the papers being sold off and therefore unobtainable to himself and the wider public, set about trying to frame the one person who he believed was ‘trying to bring him down” the American he claimed had been following him in the run up to his death.
The American in question was Jon Lellenberg, author of many books on Holmes and another prominent figure in the Sherlock Holmes landscape. Understandably he has claimed no knowledge of why Green was mentioning him or the reason for his paranoia. It is worth noting however that Lellenberg was in London at the time and had helped carefully curate the catalogue for the auction. It’s possible that Green had come across him and become unsettled by his presence, maybe laying some of the blame for the circumstances surrounding the auction at Lellenberg’s door.
Sadly, unbeknownst to Green, following the controversial auction many of the most significant documents did indeed end up at the British Library after all, meaning regardless of what occurred that evening, his life consuming biographical study of Arthur Conan Doyle could have been completed.
The coroner returned an open verdict, there was neither evidence to suggest murder, nor enough conviction from any quarters to suggest suicide and moreover strangling oneself in such a manner would be incredibly challenging especially after a bottle of wine and gin. Indeed the case that many maintain has never been concluded properly might require a sharper mind, one such as Holmes himself. Fitting that a man who dedicated his life to the Victorian detective and his creator, should leave us all puzzled.
“I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.” – Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlet