The case of the wooden spoon

A kitchen implement is just one of the clues surrounding the mysterious death of a leading Sherlock Holmes expert. Christopher Hirst dons his deerstalker and takes up the trail
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The Independent Culture

At the age of 11, I was prone to saying things like: "He is, in my judgement, the fourth smartest man in London." After subjecting strangers to close scrutiny, I'd say: "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, and that he has been in China, I can deduce nothing." I lusted after a service revolver, a dark lantern and a pipe to fill with shag.

At the age of 11, I was prone to saying things like: "He is, in my judgement, the fourth smartest man in London." After subjecting strangers to close scrutiny, I'd say: "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, and that he has been in China, I can deduce nothing." I lusted after a service revolver, a dark lantern and a pipe to fill with shag.

In short, I was a Sherlockian. I consumed the corpus, ardently wishing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written more Holmes stories. Then, to my parents' relief, the fever passed.

Two recent publications serve as reminders of the strange power of these tales of murder and vengeance set in 221B Baker Street. One is The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the other a real investigation into the mysterious death of a London-based Sherlockian that occupied 15 pages of The New Yorker. The first work contains a possible solution to the dark events reported in the second.

The new edition of the short stories is vast; 1,280 pages in two volumes. No aspect of the great detective's life goes untabulated. We learn that "there are 29 tales in which Holmes smokes only pipes, five only cigarettes and three only cigars: three tales mention pipe and cigars, two pipe and cigarettes and two others cigars and cigarettes." He smiles 103 times, chuckles 31 times and twinkles seven times. Three pages are devoted to the trajectory of the bullet in "The Adventure of the Empty House".

Key details in some stories turn out to be flawed. No real serpent corresponds to "the deadliest snake in India" in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". The murderous jellyfish in "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" is an exaggeration, as "there is no recorded fatality that can be attributed solely to jellyfish poisoning in temperate waters". The diamond known as the Blue Carbuncle was said to have been found in a goose's crop, but the goose does not have a crop.

Edited by the Los Angeles lawyer Leslie S Klinger, the annotated Holmes has contributions from a host of Sherlockians. Several come from Richard Lancelyn Green: he deduced the year in which "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" was set (1896), and identified the real shop in Kensington High Street that Doyle appropriated for "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons".

Green was the ardent Sherlockian who died in bizarre circumstances in March. He was found in his London flat lying on a bed, garrotted by a shoelace. A wooden spoon and partly empty bottle of gin lay near by. The room was locked from the inside, with no sign of forced entry. As Green left no note and garrotting is an extremely unusual means of suicide, the coroner recorded an open verdict.

Green was obsessed by Holmes and, in later life, by Conan Doyle. After collecting a huge quantity of writings and possessions, he embarked on a biography of the author, and then emotionally embroiled in a tangled affair concerning an archive of Doyle material being sold at Christie's. David Grann, who investigated the death for The New Yorker, discovered that Green believed his life was under threat. He was also preoccupied with a fellow Sherlockian, an American he insisted was "trying to ruin him" .

The Edinburgh-based Doyle specialist Owen Dudley Edwards told Grann he believed Green had been murdered. Edwards said that the wine-lover Green would never have drunk gin after dinner. He noted that Green was garrotted with a shoelace, but wore slip-on shoes. Garrotting, Edwards suggested, was "a method a skilled professional would use". Warning Grann: "Please be careful. I don't want to see you garrotted," he named the American, a defence specialist he described as "one of Donald Rumsfeld's pals".

Grann tracked the American down in Washington DC: "He works for the Pentagon in a high-ranking post." The American acknowledged that he had long been a member of a Holmes society known as the Baker Street Irregulars, but asked not to be named: "I don't think a lot of people at the Pentagon would understand my fascination with a literary character."

But The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes lets the cat out of the bag. Among the hundreds of Holmes societies listed are groups set up by US professions. They include lawyers, mathematicians, wine lovers, funeral directors, geologists and firemen. There is also a Sherlockian society for those involved with "national security", whose members call themselves the "Bruce-Partington Planners Within the Military-Industrial Complex" after the 1895 Holmes story "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", which concerns the loss of plans for a submarine. The contact name is Jon L Lellenberg of 3133 Connecticut Avenue, Washington DC.

There can be no doubt that "the American" is Lellenberg. Grann reveals that his official title in the Baker Street Irregulars is "Rodger Prescott of evil memory", which comes from the Holmes tale "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs". Type "Jon L Lellenberg" and "Rodger Prescott" into Google, and you will be directed to the Baker Street Irregulars website, which reveals they are one and the same.

Though Grann says the American's job "has given him a slightly menacing air - at least in the mind of Green's friends", Lellenberg (as we can surely call him) emerges as an admirer of Green. He says a lecture Green gave on The Hound of the Baskervilles was "dazzling". Grann writes: "As he sat up in his chair and his eyes brightened, I realised I was talking not to Green's Moriarty but to his soulmate."

Professor Moriarty was, of course, Holmes's greatest enemy. Green and Lellenberg were collaborators until they fell out in the early Nineties. Lellenberg stressed that he had not seen or spoken to Green for more than a year. He was in London on the night Green died, but he had an alibi: "He revealed with some embarrassment [that] he was walking through London on a group tour of Jack the Ripper's crime scenes."

Lellenberg is writing a history of the Baker Street Irregulars, and has reached five volumes. "It's been a slippery slope into madness and obsession," he told Grann. At least, it might be, Lellenberg added, if not for his full-time job and family. "The danger is if you have nothing else in your life but Sherlock Holmes."

Grann tells how he was contacted by a Sherlockian called John Gibson, described as "one of Green's closest friends". Earlier, Gibson had said Green's death was "a complete and utter mystery". Now, he had reached a different conclusion: "I think it was suicide. That's not all; I think he wanted it to look like murder. That's why he didn't leave a note and spoke of an American who was after him."

This echoes the late Holmes story called "The Problem of Thor Bridge", about a suicide who wants to cast the blame for her death on to a rival for her husband's affection. After solving the conundrum, Holmes says: "We can follow the steps quite clearly, and they show a remarkable subtlety of mind."

The method of Green's death is touched on in "The Adventure of the Empty House". This includes a reference to a member of Moriarty's gang, described as "a garroter by trade". A footnote in the annotated Holmes defines "garrot" as "a method of Spanish execution in which the condemned was strangled by a cord, wire or iron collar. The executioner would induce asphyxiation by twisting the cord with a stick; such a method lends meaning to the term itself, garrote being Spanish for "stick". Hence the wooden spoon found beside Green's body.

Before accepting that the brilliant, Holmes-obsessed Green killed himself this way, it is worth bearing in mind the statement by Sir Colin Berry, the president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences, who testified to the coroner that he had seen only one suicide by garrotting in 31 years. But there is also the view of Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

'The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes' is out now (Norton, £35)