38. Strange Studies from Life (1901)

Detail from S. Paget illustration from 'The Love Affair of George Vincent Parker'

This episode, we explore Conan Doyle’s life-long fascination with true crime through his ‘Strange Studies from Life’, a series of dramatic retellings of nineteenth century murders, which appeared in Strand in 1901.

You can read the stories here: 




And you can listen to the episode here:

A closed-caption version of the episode will appear two days after the episode date at our YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle. Please like and subscribe!


'The Holocaust of Manor Place'
In early 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle embarked upon a proposed series of 12 factual studies of true-life crime cases for the Strand Magazine. He only completed three: the Holocaust of Manor Place, the Love Affair of George Vicent Parker; and the Debatable Case of Mrs Emsley, which appeared in the issues for March, April, and May. All concerned sensational murder cases from the 1860s and all raised uncomfortable questions about the validity of capital punishment.

Writing and publication history

On his return from the Boer War in July 1900, Conan Doyle entered a new phase of his career as a public figure. He stood (unsuccessfully) as Liberal Unionist candidate for Edinburgh Central in September 1900 and soon gained friends among the political elite, among them Winston Churchill.

Perhaps with his mind turning to public policy issues, he pitched a 12-part series of true crime retellings to the Strand. But he soon fell out of favour with the project, perhaps fearing public reaction, or perhaps finding true crime to be more banal and artless than fiction.

He had the perfect get out when he and new friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson hatched the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles, on holiday in Cromer, Norfolk, in April 1901. Originally a standalone gothic novel, the story quickly became a reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes.

The three ‘Strange Studies from Life’ were originally collected in 1963 by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Society, a short-lived group. They were later reprinted, with other narratives, by Jack Tracy in 1988.

Conan Doyle’s interest in true crime

Madame Tussauds c. 1900
Conan Doyle’s father, Charles, had illustrated Edinburgh court cases for the Illustrated Times. A family friend, John Hill Burton, wrote Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland (c. 1852).

Peter Costello, in The Real World of Sherlock Holmes (1991), noted that Edinburgh was a centre of early crime writing, with James McGovan’s City Detective books a notably popular series. Joseph Bell too was a medical examiner.

In 1872, Conan Doyle saw the play ‘The Courier of Lyons’, based on the novel by Charles Reade, and delighted that it was “a jolly play (5 murders).”

In 1874, he visited his aunt and uncle in London and attended the famous Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors which had tableaus of three incidents he would go on to write about: the mutiny aboard the Flowery Land, the Youngman case (Holocaust Manor) and Mrs Emsley. The museum had a recreation of the room in which Mrs Emsley was found bludgeoned to death.

Margalit Fox, in Conan Doyle for the Defence (2018), notes that Conan Doyle was a collector of true-crime fiction and, in 1911, purchased 51 volumes from the estate of W. S. Gilbert.

Precursor stories

The Story of B24
Conan Doyle’s first venture into true crime writing was ‘The True Story of the Tragedy of ‘Flowery Land’’ (Louisville Courier Journal, 19 March 1899) – an account of a mutiny and massacre on board a British ship in 1863, which led to a famous trial at the Old Bailey. https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/A_True_Story_of_the_Tragedy_of_Flowery_Land

‘The Story of B 24’ (Strand, 1899), one of the Round the Fire Series, made important points about the frailties of the criminal justice system, recidivism and responsive and irresponsible criminals.

Related works about the stories

The Holocaust of Manor Place: For the details of the trial at the Old Bailey, see  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-723-18600813&div=t18600813-723#highlight

The Love Affair of George Vincent Park: https://www.geriwalton.com/george-victor-townley-and-his-murder-of-elizabeth-goodwin/ 

The Debatable Case of Mrs Emsley: Sinclair McKay, The Mile-End Murder – The Case Conan Doyle Couldn’t Solve (2017) and https://thecrimewire.com/true-crime/The-Murder-of-Mary-Emsley 

See also the Annual Register 1860 for accounts of the cases Conan Doyle adapted as 'Manor Place' and 'Mrs Emsley.'

The Crimes Club

'The Debatable Case of Mrs Emsley'
For more information on the origins of the Crimes Club, see the excellent PhD thesis by Carrie Selina Parris (2016) https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/59228/1/FINAL_VERSION_3366324_Carrie_Parris__Creative_Writing_Research_Thesis.pdf

The Club, which began as a private dinner club, was formed by Arthur Lambton, a barrister, in 1903. Early members included H. B. Irving, the son of the famous actor, and John Churton Collins. Later members included Home Office pathologist Bernard Spilsbury and authors Willie Hornung, J. K. Jerome, and P. G. Wodehouse.

The society was formed as forensic science was transforming criminal trials and sensational populist accounts of crimes were dominating the press. The Sherlock Holmes stories stand somewhere between the two.

In addition to discussing true crime, the club went on a Ripper tour on 19 April 1905. Frederick Gordon Brown, the coroner who examined Catherine Eddowes, was the group’s guide. Conan Doyle's interest in Jack the Ripper is the source of some controversy, as Paul addressed in this article on the website. Conan Doyle had previously visited the Black Museum, Scotland Yard's collection of criminal memorabilia, with Hornung and Jerome.

Conan Doyle presented several times, mostly on Slater and Edalji, but also on the psychic in crime. The latter heralded a difficult period with the society in the 1920s as Conan Doyle came to be a more divisive figure.

He briefly left the club in 1927 but presented again (on Slater) in 1929. After Conan Doyle’s death, the club seems to have entertained topics that were more humorous and salacious. The club still meets, and is known by the alternative name ‘Our Society.’

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We will be joined by Jonathan Cranfield from Liverpool John Moores University to discuss the new Edinburgh Edition of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. You can find out more here: https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-the-memoirs-of-sherlock-holmes.html