Auctions | March 3, 2015

Conan Doyle Turns Detective in Letters for Sale at Bonhams

A series of 30 autograph letters written by the renowned Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are to be auctioned in the Fine Books, Manuscripts, Atlases & Historical Photographs sale on 18 March at Bonhams Knightsbridge. The letters, which relate to the real-life criminal case of Birmingham solicitor George Edalji, carry a pre-sale estimate of £20,000-40,000. 

Conan Doyle’s involvement with the Edalji case provided the basis for Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel, Arthur & George. The first episode of ITV’s adaptation of the novel, which stars Martin Clunes as Conan Doyle, aired on 2 March.

In 1903, Edalji, the son of the Vicar of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire, was given seven years’ hard labour for animal mutilation and anonymous letter-writing. He was unexpectedly released after completing three years of his sentence, and sought the investigative services of Conan Doyle with the intention of securing a full pardon. 

In the letters, Conan Doyle writes of his ‘deep interest’ in the case and his conviction that Edalji is innocent. He felt that the Staffordshire Police were to blame for Edalji’s unjust prosecution, and the letters testify to his determination to challenge the authority of Captain Anson and his force.

Writing almost daily from 30 August to 21 October 1907 - with a notable 10-day break after his marriage to Jean Leckie on 18 September - Conan Doyle bombarded Anson with new forensic evidence and offered a list of alternative suspects, one of whom was Royden Sharp, described in the correspondence as ‘fiendishly cunning (with foolish intervals)’. Many of the letters concentrate on the case against Sharp, including analysis of his handwriting and speculations for motive: ‘Colour prejudice may have been enough to prompt [the Sharp brothers] to bait the Edalji family in the cruel way they did.’

The final letters reveal Conan Doyle’s increasing frustration with Anson: ‘I never thought my case was good enough for a prosecution,’ he says, ‘but … to say there is “absolutely nothing” against a man who exhibited a weapon and said it was the sort of one which did the outrages is a statement which makes me feel rather hopeless about the use of getting evidence.’ The penultimate letter expresses the author’s regret that, ‘to the deep disgrace of the British Administration,’ he was unable to secure compensation for Edalji.

In a fascinating twist, Anson admitted in the appendix to his printed report that he had fabricated evidence to mislead Conan Doyle and discredit him and his methods. The plot involved an elaborate ruse involving Sharp appearing to travel to London with a poison-pen letter for Conan Doyle. In 1934, a labourer, Enoch Knowles, was imprisoned after confessing to the letter-writing, but the perpetrator of the animal cruelty remained unknown.