The Memoirs of Inspector Lestrade

© 2008: G. P. Jelliss

Introductory Extract

Unlike the late Dr Watson I am not a literary man and have no pretensions to writing an autobiography or a case-book, still less a novel. These notes are dictated at the request of my grandson Michael Lestrade, as a record of various aspects of my life and times in which he has expressed an interest. I have lived a long, eventful and active life, full of incident, most of its events accessible to historians in the many dry files of Scotland Yard and the Courts of Law. What I write here are my personal reflections.

My name, as I have become all too aware over the years, is that of the Scotland Yarder most readily associated with the work of Sherlock Holmes. One of the reasons for this is no doubt the somewhat odd, frenchified, sound of my surname in contrast to the commonplace British names of many of my colleagues with whom in fact the majority of his cases were conducted. The most prominent of these were Tobias Gregson, Athelney Jones, Bradstreet of the Bow Street Division, Forbes, Martin, Stanley Hopkins, Baynes of the Surrey police, Morton and Macdonald.

It may also be that, by chance or being based in London and having some seniority, I was involved in some of Holmes's more lurid or memorable cases or those involving the nobility. Though, it must be said, my role in these cases too often had to be one of turning a blind eye to the questionable legality of some of Holmes's activities.

The name Lestrade probably is of French origin, though I have never attempted to trace my ancestry back beyond my grandfather who was a Thames waterman, while my father worked as a stevedore in the East India Docks. They always gave the name the Cockney pronunciation 'Lest-raid' rather than 'Le-strahd' as people educated in French tend to read it. In the East End of London I rubbed shoulders early on with many of the criminal fraternity and learnt their ways. Some of my old school mates took to the path of crime, and one or two later came to my professional notice, but on the whole the people we knew were, as the music hall song has it, 'poor but honest'.

As readers of A Study in Scarlet will be aware (in so far as the romances of Dr Watson can be trusted for accuracy) I was acquainted with Sherlock Holmes and his innovatory work several years before Watson came on the scene. Holmes, although he called himself a 'Consulting Detective' was really the first Forensic Scientist. It was in the chemical laboratory at University College Hospital or in my office at the Yard that we would meet to discuss the latest cases, before he and Watson took up their rooms in Baker Street. Nowadays of course there are laboratories at Scotland Yard itself, and a full-fledged Forensic Department. I am proud of my small part in nurturing these developments in their early stages.

It was unfortunate that Watson at first took a rather poor view of us Scotland Yarders, and of myself in particular, describing me as a 'little sallow, rat-faced dark eyed fellow' or 'lean and ferret-like', neither of which ferine comparison can exactly be called a compliment. His many disparaging comments on the work of the official detectives in comparison with that of his friend are too well known to need elaboration here. In reality our work was often complementary. The resources of the Yard, in terms of communications and man-power, were often as necessary to the successful outcome of a case as Holmes's scientific, deductive or under-cover work.

Later however, especially after the Moriarty episode, Watson warmed to us more, and even in his stories showed more understanding of our position. Instead of a rat or a ferret I became in the Baskerville case 'a small, wiry bulldog of a man' which I find a more pleasant simile, though bulldogs have never struck me as being particularly wiry (I would have preferred the simile of a terrier). Having established certain conventions in the earlier of his stories, Watson was obliged, in order to please his readers, to maintain the fiction of a rivalry between the official detectives and his freelance hero.

You obviously want me to tell you the truth about Moriarty, everyone does. His name and reputation have such a strong hold on the public imagination. The idea of a 'Napoleon of Crime' to counterbalance the 'Prince of Detectives' is a literary necessity. A super-villain to provide sufficiently weighty opposition to the super-hero. And this is the key to the matter. The truth — and I'm afraid it is inevitably going to disappoint you — is that the real 'Professor' Moriarty was an insignificant and sordid little schemer, a fence, blackmailer, procurer and criminal adviser. The title 'Professor' is one conferred upon such individuals by the criminal fraternity. This view of the role of Moriarty is not merely that of myself but of all my colleagues at the Yard.

It is true that Holmes and Moriarty did come into contact in a number of cases, and that each frustrated the other's plans at times, and it does seem that at one stage Holmes became somewhat obsessed with him. Watson however, in seeking to further glamourise his friend's achievements, embellished Moriarty's reputation. Moriarty, the master criminal, was a creation of Dr Watson's lurid pen. Having built up Holmes, in his romanticised accounts of his real-life cases, into an impossibly superior heroic being, this meant that the detection of everyday petty crime was just too mundane an activity for such a larger than life hero — the promotion of Moriarty to legendary status became necessary to provide a counterbalance.

The evidence for this is clear in Watson's own stories. Where does Moriarty first appear? Why, in that most melodramatic of stories The Final Problem, in which he and apparently also Holmes die in a titanic struggle against the incomparably romantic, even Wagnerian, backdrop of the Reichenbach Falls. If Moriarty had figured as so major an opponent of Holmes, how was it that, before the events of that story, Watson had never heard Holmes even mention his name? Watson tries to turn this fact on its head: "You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?" he has Holmes say. "Never", he replies. "Aye, there's the genius and the wonder of the thing!" Holmes cries, "The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him." But who can really believe that! The real Moriarty did in fact disappear at about the date, 6th May 1891, assigned to his death by Watson, and his body was never recovered, but in the files of Scotland Yard his disappearance is ascribed to his getting involved on the wrong side of an argument between two criminal gangs.

Of course, Moriarty reappears, or at least is mentioned as a shadowy figure in the background, in later accounts of earlier cases, but this is merely Watson adding later colour to otherwise less dramatic events. In particular, in The Valley of Fear, which is a story based on events of the late 1880s, Watson contradicts the account in The Final Problem, by having Holmes say: "You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?" and Watson replies "The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks ... as he is unknown to the public". Thus, in order to involve his fictionally enhanced Moriarty in more stories than just The Final Problem, Watson had to revise the date at which he first supposedly heard of the villain, back another ten years.

The inflation of Moriarty was not only a literary necessity, but also a dramatically effective means of explaining Holmes's absence from the scene for three years between 1891 and 1894. The true explanation, as others have correctly speculated, was the prosaic one of a break-down in health. Far from spending those missing years exploring in Tibet and other unlikely places, which was Watson's obviously romantic fabrication, he was simply resting in a sanatorium in Ealing. No, alas, despite your desire that two great minds of the age ought to have met, Holmes was not being treated for paranoid delusions by the young and fashionable psychoanalyst Dr Freud of Vienna!

Of course, Watson made no secret of Holmes's highly strung nature. This is not surprising in a scientific innovator. His unfortunate addiction to cocaine from quite early in his career, a result of experiments on himself during his medical research, is described in The Sign of Four, though his excuses for the habit should be treated only as rationalisation. Holmes's partial break-down of health in 1887 due to overwork was admitted in Watson's description of the case of The Reigate Squire. I lay a lot of the blame for this on Watson, who as a so-called medical practitioner, failed to give his friend proper advice. But he was always much more interested in literary acclaim than in medicine.

Why did Holmes put up with Watson's romanticising of his work? Well, he did object at times, but on the other hand it was good publicity and he liked the enhanced fame it gave him. His name became known, especially in fashionable circles and among the aristocracy, and brought him well-paid work, and — what was probably a greater attraction, in view of the sibling rivalry between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft who was something of an eminence gris in Whitehall — involvement in affairs of national and international importance.

In fact, especially towards the end of his career, Sherlock Holmes became in part an instrument of the ruling classes, often covering up for them, to save their reputations being ruined by scandalous tales in the press. This was one of the aspects of his activities which presented me with considerable personal dilemmas. His methods were often quite illegal — burglary was quite a common resort — fomenting disturbances, as in the Irene Adler case — even, in the Milverton case, connivance at murder.

For the record the following are the Sherlock Holmes cases in which my involvement in some way was acknowledged by Watson. The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Noble Batchelor, The Cardboard Box, The Norwood Builder, Charles Augustus Milverton the blackmailer, The Six Napoleons, The Second Stain, The Bruce-Partington Plans, Lady Carfax, and of course The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Lestrade, Hastings 1939.

Some Sherlock Holmes Links

Sherlock Timeline

The Hounds

Matters Criminous

The Sherlock Holmes Society of London

Review of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Sherlock

The Conan Doyle Literary Estate

Sherlock Holmes' Eternal Appeal

The Sherlock Holmes Web