Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Profile Books.

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30 thoughts on “Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

  1. OK, that’s it, FictionFan! I must put this one on the list. I keep hearing such great things about it from people such as yourself whom I trust. And what an interesting story it is, too. This is probably a very big stretch of logic, so bear with me, but I wonder whether Agatha Christie read about this case, as she named one of the characters in After the Funeral Miss Gilchrest. I know it’s not that uncommon a name, but still…

    • Oh, that’s an intriguing thought! Quite likely, too, since it appears she did put sneaky references into her books. Certainly it would appear the case was huge at the time, and although the murder was way back in 1908, the campaign to have the verdict overturned went on until the late 1920s, so she would have been aware of it, I’d think. This book is very good – I’m sure you’d enjoy it. 😀

  2. I already know a bit about this case, but this book sounds as if it might be a really comprehensive account.
    And doesn’t ACD look like Dr Watson in his photograph? 🙂

    • I didn’t really know about the case, but the name Oscar Slater seemed familiar. Yes, I liked the aspects she looked at – she kept it well-focused. Haha – he does! He should have played Watson in the films… 😉

  3. I’m so excited that this book exists because it brings together so many social justice issues AND a famous writer! I had been listening to an audio book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and he discusses a case he took for a man on death row. That man had dozens of witnesses who could prove an alibi, yet the police were happy to have someone in prison to take blame for the murder of a nice white lady in the South. I never got to finish the book. I ran out of time, which means the library app just removes the book. When I went to download it again immediately, I realized someone else had been on a waiting list.

    Side note: I’m trying to be much better at geography. I was looking at a map of the UK when I remembered that you said at one point you were an islander. Did I remember that wrong? Glasgow isn’t an island…unless there’s part of it that is and I just don’t know what I’m talking about? Some day I’d love to have a world map and stick pins in it where all my blog friends are located! That would be SO COOL!

    • Some of the convictions that have got through a jury system are incredible, and it’s usually race or class at the root of it. So much easier for the justice system to condemn an innocent man than admit that they can’t find the guilty one. I always enjoy true crime books because the good ones tell you so much about society too.

      Ha! No, I’m Glaswegian and not an islander, but I remember causing confusion with one of my Peter May reviews about the Hebrides. I said something like he’d really got the culture and reminded me of my own teen years – I meant Scottish culture in general but hadn’t made that clear, so you thought I meant I’d grown up on the islands… Hahaha! That sounds a bit voodoo-ish – be careful where you stick those pins! 😉 (I agree, though – VERY cool!)

      • Ah, yes! That’s why I thought you were an islander. It’s common in the U.S. for kids to have a world or country map with pins stuck where they have visited so they can put experience with geography and get a better understanding of places. I promise we didn’t all go to New Orleans and study with a witch doctor 😂

  4. I’m so grateful you are my friend, FF, because you expose me to books I haven’t heard of before. I am definitely interested in this one and have added it to my wishlist. How fascinating! I did have a book with a feature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in it, The Cottingley Secret, about his involvement with those mysterious fairies! I loved that book but a completely different subject than this one. 😊 Thanks again for the lovely review!

    • Aw, thank you – what a lovely comment! 😀 Conan Doyle was a fascinating man even apart from his writing – he was involved in so much of everything that was going on during his lifetime. I haven’t read that Cottingley fairies one, but I did read Conan Doyle’s own account of the whole Cottingley thing. It was kinda interesting… but also kinda dull… I’d only recommend it half-heartedly at most.

          • I have a theory and wrote about it in my review of The Cottingley Secret. I think he (and the others) needed to believe in fairies and make believe because of the harsh war time reality. It gave them hope! You are absolutely right, though, Sherlock would not have bought it!

            • You may be onto something there! I know it was after his son died in the flu epidemic just after WW1 that he began to take spiritualism so seriously…

  5. This sounds so good! I’m interested in the social attitudes of the time and how they influenced criminology. Although I rarely read nonfiction (that’s not memoir) this one has to go on my list!

    • That’s what I love about true crime books – they tell you so much about the wider society too, when they’re done well, and this one is certainly done well! It’s also very readable – she has a nice style of writing. If you do get to read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  6. This book sounds incredible! I really appreciate your review and drawing our attention to it.
    Um, is that really how Sir Arthur looked? I’d never seen a photo of him before this.

  7. This has overtones of Julian Barnes’ ‘Arthur and George’ which was about a case in the English Midlands where there was a similar miscarriage of justice that ACD became involved in – again involving someone who was condemned as much for convenience and for being foreign as for anything else. I hadn’t realised that he made something of a habit of it.

    • She talks about that case in this book – it happened before this one and I think gave him a kind of reputation as a campaigner against injustices. I also enjoyed the Barnes book, though it’s years since I read it so my memories are vague.

      • It left a lasting impression on me because it was very local and even though it happened before I was born I somehow felt responsible for the miscarriage of justice.

        • Haha – I know exactly what you mean. I was much more disgusted by the way the Glasgow police behaved than I would have been if it wasn’t my hometown…

  8. So glad you enjoyed this one so much and I can see how the history of the Scottish Legal system and the divisions of society in Glasgow would have made this especially interesting to you.
    Great review of a hugely informative book (although I got a little bit annoyed by the linguistic information regarding abduction versus deduction)

    • Yes, the Glasgow setting definitely added an extra layer of interest, especially since I knew the streets and what the houses are like and so on. Thank you! Hahaha – I decided to quietly forget all that as soon as I read it – Holmes will always deduce things as far as I’m concerned… 😉

  9. Didn’t Cleo just review this book a few weeks ago? I think she did, but your review has fleshed it out a bit more which I really appreciate it-perhaps this book will be pitched to me in Canada shortly, I’d love to review it!

    • She did – last week! It’s the thing Cleo and I most have in common – our love of true crime books – so we quite often end up reviewing them at round about the same time. I hope you do mange to get a copy – I think you’d find it interesting. ACD was such a larger-than-life character… 😀

        • Oh, what a great name! He can play at being King Arthur too, as he grows up. Or Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player! And he can read all the books by Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur C Clarke, and Arthur Miller’s plays! 😀 😀

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