The violinist who fiddled his readers

IT’S a rather familiar story. Shrewd and streetwise Edinburgh detective called in to solve a bizarre crime defies the odds and eventually snares his man using whatever means he can.

It smacks of the kind of literary crime classic which might have been produced from the pen of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, the real-life Victorian memoirs of city copper James McLevy, the modern detective work of Ian Rankin’s Rebus, or fellow crime writer Quintin Jardine’s character Edinburgh cop Robert Skinner.

Instead, in this case, the real mystery became the detective himself.

For decades, avid Victorian fans of crime tales were gripped by the seemingly real-life experiences of an Edinburgh policeman by the name of James McGovan, known for his dry humour, no-nonsense manner and his ability to always catch his man.

Thousands of readers eagerly snapped up each new installment of his diary of life on Edinburgh’s crime beat in the late 1870s. His books sold far beyond the city limits and were even translated into French and German.

Fans included a certain young Edinburgh University student by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle, while American crime writer Ellery Queen named McGovan third in his list of the world’s top nine detectives.

But all - as you might expect from a detective thriller - was not as it first seemed.

Far from being a hard-nosed, real-life city lawman credited with solving crimes such as The Mysterious Human Leg and The Murdered Tailor’s Watch, James McGovan has now been unmasked as something of a con artist.

For his readers sincerely believed they were reading the true, thrilling and gritty escapades of a Victorian Edinburgh crime fighter, but they really couldn’t have been more wrong.

The twist in the tale - an essential ingredient to any good thriller - is that McGovan was the fictional creation of a man who couldn’t have been further removed from a life on the beat: a mild-mannered violinist-turned-storyteller who was more likely to be making sweet music at Leith Theatre, adjudicating at a fiddle competition or advising fellow musicians about the value of their instruments than wrestling with hardened criminals and cracking crimes on the city’s mean streets.

Yet it is only now, 125 years since his first outing under the guise of James McGovan was published, that William C Honeyman, a "little, bandy-legged man" who favoured a velvet jacket and was rarely seen without his treasured violin case, is officially revealed as one of the world’s first fictional crime writers, the creator of a hugely popular detective which many readers believed really did exist.

Edinburgh-based Mercat Press has now gathered a collection of Honeyman’s work - which still credits James McGovan as the author - and published them for the first time in more than 80 years.

The result, The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburgh, reveals the extent of Honeyman’s masquerade, made believable by using genuine Edinburgh locations, everyday slang expressions and basing his characters on real city folk.

No doubt inspired by the hugely successful true memoirs of real-life detective James McLevy published some 20 years earlier, and the close friendship of at least one serving city police officer, Honeyman managed to create a character that was truly believable.

"The best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with," trumpeted the Publishers’ Circular in 1889 - testimony that even those at the top of the publishing tree were convinced McGovan was the genuine article, a real-life city copper.

Perhaps it was the scale of his success and the enthusiasm with which readers embraced McGovan as a true-life hero, that tempted Honeyman to keep his identity a secret. Or maybe he simply revelled in losing himself, the quiet violinist with a passion for music, in the gritty persona of his streetwise alter ego.

Whichever, McGovan, the tough-talking, fearless and determined detective couldn’t really have been further removed from William Crawford Honeyman, musician.

Born in 1845 in New Zealand, the grandson of a minor Scottish poet and songwriter Adam Crawford, Honeyman was aged just four when the family decided to make the gruelling voyage home to Edinburgh.

It was here that he received his musical training, becoming accomplished in the violin and going on to lead the orchestra at Leith Theatre and later touring with a theatrical company.

But writing and storytelling was also in his blood. While Honeyman’s first love was certainly music, the thrill of putting pen to paper ran a close second.

He joined the staff of the Dundee-based People’s Friend and the People’s Journal in 1872, contributing a massive amount of fiction and factual pieces, including a popular Violin’s Queries column in which he would answer readers’ questions about their instruments.

Yet that was still a long way from the crime-ridden streets of Victorian Edinburgh, where, despite the threat of the gallows or the misery of jail, thieves, prostitutes, drunks and violent crime were an everyday fact of life.

Despite being ensconced in his genteel world of the violin, Honeyman still managed to successfully trick his readers into falling for the hard-bitten life and times of McGovan by peppering his tales with real-life locations, descriptions of Victorian Edinburgh and wholly believable city characters.

"The tales may be fictional, but the Edinburgh in which they take place is not," explains crime author Quintin Jardine, who, having read the McGovan stories, is one of Honeyman’s new generation of fans.

"The characters may be as make-believe as the Victorian detective who describes them, but they have a veracity, and in many cases a vivacity, about them which makes them as valid today as when they were created a century and a quarter in the past."

McGovan’s tales are filled with wisdom and dark humour which stand the test of time - fiction or not, Jardine argues. "Although these are not histories, they are of historical value."

But the question is: just how did a man with no known connection to the underworld of crime or the intricacies of police work, come to pen a series of books and tales so true to life that they could con so many people? And was Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of one of the most famous detectives ever, among those initially taken in by the violinist with a skill for telling a story?

"Honeyman would have had two local literary models as guides when he began," says researcher Anne Marie Alburger, who stumbled across Honeyman’s link with the McGovan books when hunting through his works on fiddle music in the National Library.

"They were William Russell’s invented detective Waters, who made his debut in the serial Recollections of a Police Officer in Chambers Edinburgh Journal in 1849, and Edinburgh detective James McLevy’s successful memoirs, The Sliding Scale of Life, in 1861.

"Honeyman copied neither, but could have had practical assistance from Detective Sergeant William Osborne of the Edinburgh Police. He presented 1882 Chronicles of a City Detective to him with a note that it was a ‘slight tribute to his skill and energy in his profession’," she adds.

Alburger believes some local readers of the McGovan tales may well have suspected Honeyman’s hand in writing them. "They were probably all laughing their heads off," she smiles. "Honeyman was very well known at the time for his work with the People’s Journal in which he had a violin column. When one story appeared which told how McGovan got involved in the theft of a Stradivarius violin, it probably became apparent to many that it was Honeyman sending himself up."

But while some readers in Central Scotland may have solved the mystery, Alburger claims McGovan’s fans further afield were certainly taken in.

"Many would not have known there was any connection between McGovan and Honeyman. He uses the kind of language they would expect an Edinburgh policeman to use, and there are so many small details - not least of which are the descriptions of the city. He has people living in doss houses, he mentions Carruthers Close, the open drains, the train journeys between towns and the boat which went from Leith to Newcastle.

"Why did he not put his name to the McGovan stories? That’s the mystery," she adds. "Perhaps it was simply because it was editorial policy at the People’s Journal that his violin columns appeared unsigned and it was what he felt comfortable with, or maybe it was part of the fun of it for him. I suspect he quite enjoyed people trying to figure out who he was, this writer who has all this inside information about life in Edinburgh."

She believes the McGovan books almost certainly left their mark on the man who would go on to create perhaps the world’s best known detective.

"I would be surprised if Arthur Conan Doyle was not influenced by Honeyman’s work," she says. "And it would be most surprising if Honeyman was not aware of the Doyle family.

"There are clear links: one Honeyman story refers to a family of Catholics called O’Doyle - he would not have done that without some thought.

"Then you look at Conan Doyle’s pen sketches of the Holmes’ character - he describes him as a collector of old violins. Why would a medical student with no apparent interest in music do that? It seems to tally with Honeyman."

But just how strong the influence and the links are between the world-famous detective author and the quiet musician who preferred to keep his identity a secret will probably never be known.

Honeyman died, aged 74, in 1919 and his only surviving daughter, Lisa, passed away in the 1950s. Even today it’s unclear exactly how many McGovan stories were published both here and abroad.

"It’s all pure speculation," agrees Alburger. "We may never really get to the bottom of it. And, in a way, that just adds to the mystery."

• The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburgh by James McGovan, is published by Mercat Press, Coates Crescent, Edinburgh, price. 9.99