“I am lost without my Boswell.”
The Red-Handed League, my new thriller about Sherlock Holmes, debuts this week.
Hewing to a Doylean naming strategy, this little essay might be called, The Matter of the Murdered Biographer. It could also be titled, The Case of Fearful Symmetry.
Here’s what I mean:
My first work published by Betimes Books was the literary thriller Permanent Fatal Error. It centers on a presumed-dead cult novelist ala J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon whose would-be biographers mysteriously die.
The Red-Handed League is a present-day prequel to Conan Doyle’s first-published Sherlock Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet.
My new book spins on inappropriate relationships between students and instructors at an upscale private school. It also re-imagines and melds aspects of several noted Holmes tales, including “The Red-Headed League” and “The Master Blackmailer.”
What goes around comes around, they say.
Or as Holmes might observe, “Everything comes in circles. The old wheel turns and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”
There’s a creepy nexus between my first and second books for Betimes, you see.
While we were working on cover designs and last touches for The Red-Handed League, my publisher ran across an article about a man obsessed with writing the definitive biography of a famous author, only to die violently under the most mysterious of circumstances.
The excellent article by David Grann detailing this real-life mystery was published in The New Yorker in December 2004.
“That’s pretty far back in the rearview mirror, Ms. Colt,” you might point out.
And I’d respond, “Yes. Yes, it is.”
There is fearful symmetry in this. Deliciously lingering mystery, too.
The Betimes Books publisher and her author were struck by the very strange overlap between the mysterious death of a deceased novelist’s would-be biographer (the set up for an elevator pitch for Permanent Fatal Error) and the fact our second novel together centers on Sherlock Holmes.
You see, the real-life biographer who met his mysterious death in his home surrounded by Holmesian books and collectibles was a revered Sherlock scholar named Richard Lancelyn Green.
His intended biographical subject was (of course) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Apparent cause of death: (Clears throat) Self-garroting with a bit of string and a spoon.
Pray, go off now and read Mr. Grann’s superb piece on this mysterious affair. I’ll wait here, staring out the window, surely brooding, but sans pipe or violin.
What was I doing as Christmas crept up in 2004? How did I miss this when it was fresh?
At any rate, like all good 21st Century armchair detectives, I went straight to Googling this matter to see if any official investigator or real-life Holmes had advanced the ball.
In the intervening twelve or more years, surely someone shed definitive light on what happened to this unfortunate biographer, yes?
But beyond the mystery of the mysterious American voice on the answering machine turning out to be a factory-loaded feature, there’s no more new to report, alas.
Matters stand now as they did in December 2004.
You can believe this was a case of murder, or you can dismiss it as an elaborate suicide staged by a man given to extreme dramatics (very Holmes-like, that last).
Permanent Fatal Error, my thriller about murdered biographers, opens with a quote declaring, “Any biography uneasily shelters an autobiography within.”
Maybe too, a biography can shelter mortal risk for the would-be Boswell… Perhaps even the prospect of perishing before publishing.