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The strange (violin) case of the fiddling detective

Luis Dias

No, it’s not Sherlock Holmes, although he turns up later in this bizarre tale.

This is yet another example of how I learn from my students. I recently gave a violin lesson to a young girl who had brought along a book many violin teachers and students will be very familiar with: ‘The Young Violinist’s Tutor and Duet Book: A Collection of Easy Airs, Operatic Selections and Familiar Melodies’, harmonised as duets for two violins by William C Honeyman. We often end sessions playing a random duet from the selection, and it’s a lot of fun.

After her last lesson, when we played a particularly invigorating duet, my curiosity about Honeyman was aroused. But what I learned stunned me. I have a new-found respect for him! Let me elaborate why.

William Crawford Honeyman (1845-1919) was born in New Zealand to Scottish emigrés. When he was four, the family made the long grueling voyage back to Scotland. Honeyman grew up in Edinburgh, where he received his musical training, becoming an accomplished violinist. He went on to become orchestra leader at Leith Theatre and later to tour with a theatrical company.

Honeyman published several other violin instructional books apart from the aforementioned, such as ‘How to Play the Violin’, ‘The Secrets of Violin Playing’, a sequel ‘The Secrets of Violin Playing: Being Full Instructions and Hints To Violin Players, For The Perfect Mastery of The Instrument’, ‘The Strathspey, Reel, and Hornpipe Tutor’ and ‘The Violin: How to Master It / By a Professional Player’.

He obviously became something of an authority on violin selection and violin-making, going on to write ‘The Violin: How To Choose One’ and ‘Scottish Violin Makers: Past and Present.’ 

Not only that, from 1872 Honeyman contributed to the Dundee-based publications People’s Friend and People’s Journal, in which apart from “a massive amount of fiction and factual pieces”, he started a (surprisingly? It surprised me!) very popular ‘Violin’s Queries’ in which he would “answer readers’ questions about
their instruments.”  

The Tutor and Duet book makes the boast on its cover that it is the only one “actually written for a beginner, having been written week by week by the Author for his own child from the age of five to eight years.” 

It is no idle boast. His daughter Liza also became a skilled violinist who played a Guarneri (1742 Cremona); the instrument was apparently acclaimed by Sivori (Niccolò Paganini’s only pupil) as “the finest toned violin in the world.”

All very interesting, but the sort of stuff you’d expect to find in the biography of a famous violinist, pedagogue
and expert.

But Honeyman led a double life. Described by contemporary accounts as a “little, bandy-legged man” who “favoured a velvet jacket and was rarely seen without his treasured violin case”, he was much better known in his lifetime under his pseudonym James McGovan, writer of police
detective novels.

‘McGovan’ wrote so knowledgeably and with such authenticity about crime and crime-solving as if he were a real-life police detective that many readers didn’t realise his pieces were fiction and assumed they were true stories. He was highly regarded in writing circles as well in his lifetime; an 1889 Publishers’ Circular proclaimed McGovan’s articles “the best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with.” His crime stores were anthologised in 1878 and even translated into French and German.

It is thought that Honeyman/McGovan shaped his writing style around the hugely successful true memoirs (‘The Sliding Scale of Life’) of real-life detective James McLevy (1796-1875) published some 20 years earlier, and he also had help from at least one serving city police officer, Sergeant William Osborne, who was a friend. Honeyman/McGovan presented his 1882 ‘Chronicles of a City Detective’ to Osborne with a note that it was a “slight tribute” to his “skill and energy” in
his profession.  

Why the pseudonym? It isn’t clear. Perhaps he wished to have an alter ego, just as many modern-day fictional superheroes do.  

Researcher Anne Marie Alburger was going through Honeyman’s works on violin music in the National Library when he came across the McGovan connection. She speculates that the editorial policy at the People’s Friend that his violin columns appear unsigned might have given a taste of the thrill of the cloak of anonymity. “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 said in an interview to The Scotsman in 2003. Or perhaps he might have been too successful for his own good; Honeyman may have felt that his readers would find it too much of an anti-climax if they realised that their almost ‘real-life’ hero McGovan was in fact an unassuming musician. Alburger also allows for the possibility that at least some readers may also have known McGovan’s true identity and were laughing along with Honeyman. One story even has McGovan investigating the theft of a Stradivari violin, which may have given the game away, an instance of Honeyman “sending himself up”.

The 2003 article was covering the publishing  for the first time after more than eighty years, of  a collection of Honeyman’s work – which still credits James McGovan as the author, ‘The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburgh’.

Scottish crime novelist Quintin Jardine is all admiration: “The tales may be fictional, but the Edinburgh in which they take place is not. 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. Although these are not histories, they are of historical value.”

The McGovan readership in Edinburgh included a certain Arthur Conan Doyle. Alburger is convinced that McGovan was the inspiration behind the creation of Sherlock Holmes. The McGovan stories were all over the Edinburgh newsstands when Doyl was a young medical student. Others speculate on the influence of McLevy as well. But the McGovan angle is particularly compelling. I often wondered what prompted Doyle to write in Holmes’ fascination with the violin. It has Honeyman written all over it.

Mystery solved? Alburger points to tantalisng clues. She thinks it would be “most surprising if Honeyman was not aware of the Doyle family.” And one story actually refers to a Catholic family called O’Doyle. McGovan fights arch-villain McCluskie (a proto-Moriarty?). Alburger even thinks that Holmes deciding to taking up bee-keeping in retirement is an audacious clue to his really becoming a ‘Honey’man!

I trawled the internet for a decent picture of either Honeyman or McGovan. But for a grainy low-resolution picture of his bearded visage on the cover of Honeyman’s ‘Scottish Violin Makers: Past and Present’, the trail grew cold. McGovan still has the last laugh. He always gets his man, but he
still eludes us! 

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