Joseph Smith Fletcher was born on February 7, 1863, in Halifax, Yorkshire; his father, John Fletcher, was a Nonconformist clergyman. Orphaned as a child, Fletcher was reared by a grandmother and educated at Silcoates School and by private tutors. By the time he was twenty, he had published four books, including three volumes of poetry, and had gone south to London. There he wrote about rural life for newspapers and magazines, using the pseudonym “A Son of the Soil.” He also produced editorials for the Leeds Mercury and began to write biographies, historical studies, and romances. By 1898, he had decided to forsake journalism and devote himself solely to books. For the next thirty-seven years—until his death on January 30, 1935, at Dorking, Surrey—Fletcher published at least three books per year, gaining renown as a historian of his native Yorkshire for such works as A Picturesque History of Yorkshire (1899-1901), The Cistercians in Yorkshire (1919), The Reformation in Northern England (1925), and Yorkshiremen of the Restoration (1921). For these and other historical works, he was made a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He also was a chronicler of racing and continued to write poetry throughout his life. He was married to Rosamond Langbridge, the daughter of the canon of Limerick, and they had one son.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Fletcher began writing mystery fiction, which became his primary literary activity in the last decades of his life. About the origin of his work in the genre he said: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 and mysteries, and now and then did “special commissions” for various big papers on famous murder trials. Also, I learnt a good deal about criminology in conversations with the late H. B. Irving, the famous actor, who was an expert.