How fame eluded a man of many words

Having written more than 230 books, author JS Fletcher should be one of Yorkshire's most famous sons. So why, asks Sarah Freeman, has no one heard of him?

It hardly seems very fair. JS Fletcher wrote 237 books ranging from history to detective novels, won the personal approval of the American president, but in his native Yorkshire mention his name and all you'll get in return are blank looks and shrugged shoulders.

Perhaps he should have chosen a more exotic pen name, (JS stands for the hardly dynamic Joseph Smith), but minor quibbles aside, he did everything he could to deserve a place in Yorkshire's literary history.

"At one time Fletcher's books were so popular they could be found in some profusion on railway station bookstalls," says John Goodchild, curator of an exhibition dedicated to the author's life and work and a man determined to champion the cause of the overlooked Fletcher. "I first became interested in him after reading one of his detective novels. He never pretended his fiction was psychologically deep, but he knew how to tell a cracking good tale and that suits me.

"He was extremely prolific and he was, in truth, a scholar, who aside from writing page-turning fiction did much work chronicling Yorkshire's history, yet you ask most people about him and they have never heard of him. That's why I wanted to do this exhibition and hopefully take his work to a wider audience."

Born in Halifax in 1863, Fletcher's clergyman father died when his son was eight months old and he was brought up by his grandmother on a farm in Darrington, near Pontefract. It was after leaving Silcoates School in Wakefield that the seeds of his writing career were sown, when apparently heading for a career in law he fell into journalism landing a sub-editor's job in London at the age of 20.

However, his native Yorkshire proved too much of a lure and he returned to work first on the Leeds Mercury under the pen name A Son of the Soil and then as a special correspondent for the Yorkshire Post covering the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

By then he had already had a number of books published, but while newspapers allowed him to pay the bills, it was his own writing he wished to pursue and it was when he decided to go freelance his literary career really took off.

Fletcher's early work included a series of books written in Yorkshire dialect, which led to him being dubbed the Yorkshire Hardy, but while he always claimed he wrote "history for love and novels for a living", it was the latter which catapulted him into the big time.

In 1914, Fletcher crossed the Ts and dotted the Is on his first detective novels. Having successfully tapped into the popular market, there was no stopping him and while he would often ponder the nuances of the plot and characters during long walks in the countryside, the books often took weeks rather than months or years to write.

"It was an impressive output," adds John. "In 20 years he wrote more than 100 novels and left the world a very rich legacy.

"They might not be as important in a literary sense as, say, the novels of Charles Dickens, but he knew what his readers wanted and he knew how to give it to them."

Some literary historians claim it was his thrillers which began the craze for detective fiction and while that may be a slight exaggeration, he did win plaudits in unlikely circles.

While recovering from a breakdown following the First World War, American president Woodrow Wilson was given a copy of Fletcher's The Middle Temple Murder to help him convalesce and it proved exactly the right medicine.

Centred around a decidedly dodgy MP, Wilson said it was the best detective story he had ever read, a soundbite which was seized upon by the US press and saw Fletcher's sales rocket – as what was good enough reading material for the White House was good enough for the American public.

Today, Fletcher's books are still popular across the Pond, so why did he fail to capture the hearts of his native Yorkshiremen.

"It's very difficult to know why he never became a big name in his home country," says John.

"I think part of the reason is that his novels are all self-contained, they don't have one consistent detective and from one to the next the characters can inhabit very different worlds.

"Readers, I think, tend to prefer fictional series where they get to know the detective and where they feel part of their world.

"While Fletcher may have been integral in sparking the craze for detective fiction, certainly in this country he was overtaken by the likes of Agatha Christie and unfortunately he had no answer to Miss Marple."

As Fletcher's American career began to take off, he moved from Yorkshire where no one knew his name, to Dorking where he remained equally anonymous and in his later years little would change.

Dying in 1933, at the age of 73, he left behind his wife Rosamond, who was an author in her own right and son the Rev Valentine Fletcher, who went on to hold various ministries across Yorkshire, including Sedburgh and Bradford, and his passing didn't go quite unmarked in his home county.

Various obituaries praised not only his prolific output, but also his breadth of knowledge, but Fletcher, a man who had once described himself as "a very ordinary man who knows how

to tell a tale and has learnt his

job, which is more than most of your modern writers ever do," would have probably liked to have heard such praise during his lifetime.

"Today people want to know every little detail about the lives of celebrities," adds John.

"But when Fletcher was writing it was a very different age.

"People were judged on their work rather than their personal lives and we don't really know much about what made him tick.

"He started life as an incredibly non-conformist individual but ended it having embraced orthodox religion, which I think is quite interesting, but while he left behind an incredible library of his own work, there are no personal letters, no official biography and no diaries which let us see the man behind the books. I don't think that's necessarily a sad thing, it's just the way it is."

As anniversaries of his birth and death came and went, fans of Fletcher bemoaned the lack of any obvious tribute to his work. An oak screen was final dedicated to him in the church in the village of Darrington, but it is still scant commemoration for a man who dedicated his life to the education and enjoyment of others.

The exhibition dedicated to JS Fletcher runs at the Gissing Centre in Wakefield until September 30. John Goodchild will give a talk on Yorkshire's most prolific novelist on July 5 at 7pm. For more information call 01924 372748.

Joseph Smith Fletcher

Born: February 7, 1863 in


Died: January 30, 1935.

Novels: One of this first detective stories was the Adventures of Archer Dawe, about an elderly amateur detective who was called on to help Scotland Yard solve a particularly difficult case. In total he wrote 120 detective stories.

History: During his career, he wrote books on the Reformation in the north of England, Yorkshire monasteries and numerous books on the county's archaeology and was eventually made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

In his own words: "I believe I got my interest in criminology right from the fact that a famous case of fraud was heard at the Quarter Sessions at a town where I was at school – its circumstances were unusual and mysterious and the truth hard to get at; oddly enough, I have never yet used this as the basis of a story.

"Then, when I left school, I meant to be a barrister and I read criminal law and attended a great many queer trials for some time.

"But turning to journalism instead, I knew of a great many queer cases on famous murder trials. Also, I learnt a good deal about criminology in conversations with the late HB Irving, the famous actor, who was an expert."