What are The Centurion Papers?



A note from the Davies Brothers regarding one of the most important historical discoveries of recent years:

It would be unusual to find anyone born over the past century and a half who is not in some way familiar with the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. We are no exceptions. Dr Watson’s gripping accounts of his long-time companion’s exploits thrilled us as children and continue to do so as adults. However, our interest in Holmes and Watson’s stories was purely recreational until we were contacted – through a convoluted chain of friends and acquaintances – by a newsagent in Northamptonshire. Geraint James asked us to record for posterity his son’s recent battle against the M League, the heinous secret society created by Professor Moriarty himself. You will, of course, be familiar with many of the events related to ‘The Holmes List’ through the countless news reports, as well as the litany of publications investigating the most shocking political scandal of our times, but our good fortune in obtaining first-hand testimony of the affair resulted in our comprehensive account, Hudson James and the Baker Street Legacy, gaining a certain renown among Holmes scholars and the public at large.

We were delighted to have made a small contribution to the canon of work devoted to the great detective and his wider circle of allies and foes, but we were each satisfied to return to our more mundane existences as lecturers and researchers, Nicholas in Wales and Brett in Japan. That was until, quite out of the blue, we received an email from Sarfraz Malik, Senior Vice President (Media Relations) for Letts International Banking Corporation. In his message, Mr Malik suggested that we may be able to assist his staff in curating the contents of a safety deposit box that had recently been opened in the Strand branch of LIBC. The box had been left in the bank’s care exactly one hundred years ago (when it was known, simply, as Letts of London) under express instruction that the contents not be released until now. However, Mr Malik admitted that his colleagues were at a loss exactly what to do with the documents they had found inside: a thick packet of handwritten papers penned by its depositor, Dr John H. Watson.

Naturally, our curiosity was piqued, and we each made the journey to London – Nicholas from Cardiff; Brett from Tokyo (an airfare that has yet to be reimbursed) – so that we could examine this important historical discovery more closely. Our initial excitement was tempered somewhat upon seeing the physical condition of the papers. They had been tied together by string made of a coarse hemp, which had absorbed some of the Indian ink from the pages (this was presumably the work of a careless clerk rather than of Watson himself, who was famously fastidious in the preservation of his accounts). Additionally, there was evidence of damp inside the steel box, causing rust damage to transfer from the lining of the container and onto the papers themselves. LIBC’s unceasingly helpful resident historian, Sandra Beardsley, explained that the supposedly impenetrable basement of the Strand branch had flooded in 1940 – a burst waterpipe resulting from Luftwaffe bombing during the Blitz.

We would eventually require the services of the British Museum to help separate the pages and restore those sections where the ink had smeared or disintegrated completely. Through a combination of state-of-the-art computer modelling techniques and MRI scans, as well as the diligence, skill and dedication of the museum’s restoration unit, we were finally able to gain an almost complete set of documents from which to work. (Special thanks to Drs Andi Tilson and Desi Murty for their talent, good humour and endless supplies of instant coffee!)

It was almost six months after first receiving Mr Malik’s initial email that we could, at long last, begin the task of reading John Watson’s papers. Even after so much sterling restoration work, this was no easy procedure. There was the problem of Watson’s spidery handwriting making some words difficult to decipher (he was a GP, after all). Then, while some stories betrayed elements of the distinctive prose style so beloved of millions (these accounts presumably intended for publication before Watson chose otherwise – or had that decision made for him), others were in mere note form. In a few of the cases, the reports were even written in code, so sensitive were the contents.

The curation and verification process has been helped in part by the covering notes that Watson attached to most of his reports. While these were not intended for publication, we have included them here due to their historical significance and in order to give some context to the events on which he was reporting. Dr Watson dated these notes, and it is interesting that he appeared to be planning for some time to compile this packet of stories for delayed publication. What we could not discover from any of his papers, however, was exactly why he chose to deposit the documents in the bank when he did. Holmes had long retired by this time (aside from a brief return at the beginning of the war), so it seemed unlikely that Watson was waiting to include any new adventures. It may be that following the initial successes of the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front in early 1918, Watson felt a greater urgency to ensure his legacy remained intact (which lends a certain irony to the fact that it was during the next World War that we nearly lost the entire collection to a German bombardment).

Holmes scholars will, of course, be aware of Watson’s legendary army dispatch box, referred to at the beginning of The Problem of Thor Bridge, containing unpublished accounts of some of Holmes’s cases. Those same scholars will know that, according to Watson’s tale, the box was secured in the vaults of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, and not at Letts on the Strand. In recent years, at least twelve different historians have claimed to have unearthed the same dispatch box and made the contents available for publication. We have no reason to doubt the integrity of any of these individuals, and we are sure they each released their findings in good faith; however, the very fact that Watson revealed the precise location of the box in print suggests that – to paraphrase his colleague – some game was afoot. As our recent investigations in Northamptonshire confirmed, Holmes and Watson were well aware of Moriarty’s influence even after his death at Reichenbach, so the doctor’s very public reference to this dispatch box was almost certainly a ruse designed to lead Moriarty’s dark disciples in the wrong direction. While we concede that Watson may have left some reports of a more trivial nature in the care of Cox and Co., perhaps in the hope of persuading the M League that they were the very extent of Holmes’s investigations, we are confident that our discovery is Watson’s most important – and most shocking – legacy.

Throughout the arduous curation process, we have gained fresh admiration for the work of Watson’s contemporary editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who perhaps deserves greater credit for fleshing out Watson’s accounts with such verve and narrative flair. However, we must also remember that the sometimes shocking and ghastly contents of these newly-discovered stories may have rendered Watson’s writing less cohesive than in some of his more famous adventures. We have attempted to emulate his (and Conan Doyle’s) usual style in those reports left incomplete, while at all times striving to maintain the absolute truth of the events.

The Davies Brothers


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