James McLevy is Edinburgh’s first detective, Criminal Officer number 1 and is said to be part of the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. He worked in Edinburgh from 1830 to 1860 and solved over 2200 cases. His methods produced results with his deduction and use of psychology. He was famous in Edinburgh and called to parliament to give advice, such was his success.

James McLevy was born in Ballymacnab in 1796 and died in 1873 in Edinburgh. His father, John McLevy, was a weaver and farmer, and his mother was Catherine Dourie. He had a sister Mary, one year older and who never married, who would eventually come to Edinburgh at the age of 40 to work as a fruit seller and live with McLevy. He also had another sister who married a man with surname Rodgers and the niece would look after her uncle and aunt in Edinburgh until their deaths.

At the age of thirteen in 1809 James McLevy was apprenticed to the trade of fine-linen weaving until age 17 after which in 1813 he went to Gatehouse of Fleet for two years. It is probable he worked in the Gatehouse of Fleet linen mill

In 1815 he came to Edinburgh to be employed by a builder Mr Wallace, then his son-in-law Mr Walker and latterly Mr Robert Paterson. At some point, he married Rosa O’Neill although no mention is made of her in all his books and she probably died early in his life.   In  August 1830 at the age of 34, he successfully entered the Edinburgh police as a night watchman.

In 1833 he became Edinburgh’s first criminal officer detective – CO 1 – and during his career is said to have dealt with 2200 cases.

Three officers joined in 1830; Edinburgh police officer 92, James McLevy, and in May 1830 officer 79, Andrew Goodall and officer 80, William Mulholland who was to share many adventures with McLevy.


William Mullholland signature

In 1850 the police log book described James as 5 foot 9 inches tall, full of face, grey eyes, grey hair and a fresh complexion.

James McLevy

His stature and fame were such that he was the first police officer to get a financial award for the recovery of stolen goods, and gold watches, and was invited to speak before the house of parliament on 9 June 1856 to the select committee on the transportation of criminals. He published two popular books after the retiral and it is said these influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when writing Sherlock Holmes. There are similarities in the detective’s approach although McLevy’s is based on real cases.

His sister Mary McLevy came to Edinburgh as did Mary Rodgers, described as his niece. James McLevy died on 6 December 1873  at 5 South Richmond Street now demolished.

South Richmond Street 1929

He is buried in the prestigious Canongate Cemetery on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile alongside Adam Smith, Robert Ferguson and William Fettes. Unfortunately, the marker was probably wooden and has long since disappeared although the location of the grave has been recorded.

Canongate Cemetery – James McLevy Grave

Mary Rodgers registered both deaths; the sister in 1870 and McLevy himself in 1873 before dying herself in 1895. With no surviving family nor registered will it is unknown what became of the book proceeds.


  1. I am a great fan of Rebus but the McLevy stories on Radio 4 keep me totally engrossed by the workings of the plot lines and the variation in the mind set of the man.

  2. @paul rochard

    Please, no TV series, they already wrecked rebus on TV. Lets listen or read about James Mclevy and use our own imaginations.

    • I agree. I already know what everyone looks like, and how the scenes look. I don’t want to see a director’s idea.

  3. I agree it is a great series no need to put this on Tv it would spoil the stories and the great writing radio is a very good medium for these detective stories just look at what the BBC Radio has done with Sherlock Holmes

  4. It would be great to be able to download Series 8 and 9. When are they likely to be accessible as the preceding series are all available!

  5. Ashton’s prose is simply a joy to the ear, is it based on the writing style in the original books?

  6. The cost and profitable opportunity of producing a TV series these days means that it has to appeal to a wider audience which unfortunately also means being rendered palatable to the USA – McLevy would soon have a gunslinger sidekick and a vocabulary of 1,000 words or less – in the opinion of this “Littleton brown duck” no thanks,.

  7. the Sopranos and the Wire are excellent TV series and I have to use subtitles to understand the patois so it can be done.

  8. Just listening once again on BBC 4extra to the first series. It’s just reminded me of how well written it is and with the performance of Cox and Redmond are wonderful. Radio drama at its best.

  9. I agree with all that has written by a lot of the listeners just let this wonderful Radio Drama remain with great writing, acting and just great radio presentation.. So please no TV series!!

      • Interesting though that his middle name (Charles) is taken (by Mulholland) as a clue to McLevy’s “Jacobite leanings” which James will not discuss but does not deny.
        He does sing “Charlie is my darling” from time to time.
        Were some Irish people Jacobite sympathisers? Is that possible?

  10. I had no idea! I thought the Radio 4 drama was pure invention until I came across references in “Edinburgh” by George Scott – Moncrieff recently. I wish there was some acknowledgement and introduction re the historical actuality in the Radio 4 broadcasts, especially given the imputed influence of JM’s published books upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes. MacLevy’s career seems worthy of a documentary in it’s own right …..

  11. So sad that it has ended. I have enjoyed both the radio series and the books. I could see a follow on series but I doubt very much it could happen…………………. Really well done Mr. Ashton and thank you for many hours of entertainment………….

  12. I too hope that “The Last Goodbye” is not the last we hear of McLevy on Radio 4. It has been without a doubt one of the consistently best things on R4 I have ever enjoyed.

  13. I have always looked forward to new installments of the McLevy saga and I am so disappointed that it has come to an end. warmest congratulations to the (perfect) cast and especially David Ashton, his understanding of character and use of language has been a supreme pleasure. The final episode made me laugh out loud at times and the end of Roach was very touching. Thanks to all, you will be missed.

  14. Wanted to congratulate the BBC on a wonderful Radio series.. David Ashton’s writing was sublime loved it.. I have now bought the series through Audible books so I can listen to again as & when I wish.. I want to thank all of the cast for giving us such an enjoyable radio series and all who worked on it they should all be very proud again thank you !!!

  15. The number of positive reviews on the Amazon website for Mr. Ashton’s ‘McLevy’ is testimony to the success of these splendid radio shows. The dialogue, and Insp. McLevy’s soliloquies, are quite remarkable, and I never get tired of them. A rare gem, with engrossing plots and superb acting.
    The novels are almost as good, too. Hats off to all concerned.

  16. Never listened to the Radio shows of the works of David Ashton about James Mclevy but have read all the books and loved them As I understand Mclevy was involved with 2,200 crimes so I think Mr Ashton still has a wealth of stories to continue I really hope so Never mind he is Irish he spoke better Scots than most of us

    • The BBC drama version of the Mclevy adventures couldn’t be more fun to listen to! So far I binged 12 series in two weeks..

  17. James McLevy was my great (x4 I think) uncle. I’m descended from his brother who also moved to Scotland. But I knew nothing about him until a few years ago when I developed an interest in my family history and was told about him by older family.

    • How wonderful! Have you heard any of the Radio 4 adaptations of his dealings ? Kind Regards, Chris

      • Yes there are 12 series of the Edinburgh detective. Whilst bbc4xtra play them regularly they can also be found on the ‘internet archive’ along with an endless supply of audio drama from around the world.
        From both 50’s American and Brit sci-fi drama to crime drama and all inbetween..

    • Out of curiosity, public signed documents above indicate that he signed his last name as James McLevie. Why was the “ie” in his last name changed to a “y”.

      • Surname spellings at that time were often different as someone would write down the phonetic version of what they heard. There are at least four variations for his name – James McLevy is the one mostly used in official printed documents – newspapers and parliament, James M’Levy is the name used on his books printed in 1861 and it’s James McLevie when he joined the police. Court documents call him James M’Levie. It makes searching official records more interesting 🙂 Family history researchers use a “soundex” catalogue to find various spellings of a surname and McLevy has about 50 spelling variations….

  18. I confess my ignorance that the amazing detective Mclevy was a real life detective. But I am delighted he was so; it only makes my enjoyment of the audio series all the more enjoyable. Does anyone know if the redoubtable Jean Brash was indeed a real life character also?
    The casting of the drama series couldn’t be bettered, I agree with other commentators that it’s best not to have a tv series, that said; Mclevy could be Scotland’s answer to Jason Bourne 😳😄

  19. Just listened to all 12 series on bbc sounds and cannot praise enough the writer, David Ashton and the cast. It was a wonderful and engaging listen

  20. Thank you for a wonderful series. I have been held enthralled. The stories, the production, the cast have all been so wonderfully moulded into a ‘real’ story for me. Thank you again.

  21. An excellent Drama series and in particular some of the old Scots words and phrases like ‘on the saunter’ or ‘a bit of a Rammy[?] and ‘your Servant aye’. Like any book or audio play the imagination of the characters in ones mind are best left as they are, especially in this day and age where the characters ethnicity and gender are frequently changed in order to conform with today’s attitudes regardless of authenticity.

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