Conan Doyle for the Defence

Conan Doyle for the DefenceConan Doyle for the Defence
by Margalit Fox
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781253564
Publication Date: July 25, 2018
Pages: 318
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

Just before Christmas 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 82-year-old spinster, was found bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. A valuable diamond brooch was missing, and police soon fastened on a suspect - Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant who was rumoured to have a disreputable character. Slater had an alibi, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment in the notorious Peterhead Prison.

Seventeen years later, a convict called William Gordon was released from Peterhead. Concealed in a false tooth was a message, addressed to the only man Slater thought could help him - Arthur Conan Doyle. Always a champion of the downtrodden, Conan Doyle turned his formidable talents to freeing Slater, deploying a forensic mind worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Drawing from original sources including Oscar Slater's prison letters, this is Margalit Fox's vivid and compelling account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history.


4 stars for the writing, but I bumped it up .5 star because I learned a lot I didn’t know before I started.

The title is something of a misnomer, as it implies that Conan Doyle was an active participant in the defence of Oscar Slater, and he wasn’t – he didn’t involve himself until several years after Slater’s conviction and incarceration.  Once he did, however, he did it to devastating effect, but to no avail; it wasn’t until he renewed his efforts some 15 years later, in partnership with an investigative journalist, William Park, that the gears of justice finally started to grind.

As much as this book is about the gross injustice served upon Oscar Slater (it was indeed Scotland’s Dreyfus affair), it’s also a revealing look into Scotland at the turn of the century, when science was just beginning to gain its capital “S” but society still stood firmly in the class and morality rigid past.  The level of anti-Semitism was profound, something I would never have associated with Scotland, such is my ignorance of history.

In my status update, I had gotten just to the point in the book where it looked like the author was going to make an argument for pre-meditation on behalf of the Glasgow police, in framing Slater for the crime, while at the same time detailing the force’s stupidity.  Her argument didn’t proceed quite along the lines it looked to be headed, but she did, in the end, paint the force as being results-oriented to the point of gross injustice.  It’s clear that the only concern was not only an arrest and conviction, but an arrest and conviction of somebody deemed undesirable; an effort to kill two birds with one stone.  That they were willing to forge documents and browbeat witnesses into perjury is clearly documented and the only greater injustice than the one done to Slater is that those most guilty were all dead before they could be held to account for their own crimes.

Because the story of just Conan Doyle’s participation in releasing Slater would have been more a pamphlet than a book, the text is liberally padded with small biographies of Slater, Conan Doyle, and Joseph Bell, as well as chapters detailing the types of reasoning used for investigation, and previous cases where Conan Doyle’s assistance prevailed in either convicting the right man, or releasing the one wrongly convicted.  A small detour towards the end is made into Conan Doyle’s foray into the paranormal, and the author tried to tie it into the book by speculating that it might have negated his influence with the Scottish authorities, a justification that I don’t think she really established.

I feel like this book is one packs enough into a seemingly straightforward narrative as to offer almost endless avenues for discussions covering a wide variety of topics.  As I said at the start, I learned a lot (granted I wasn’t starting from a very learned position); I found the narrative easy to read and much more engrossing than I originally expected and I came away with an even deeper respect for Conan Doyle than I started with.

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