Rating: 4 Stars
In ‘Conan Doyle for the Defense’, Margalit Fox examines one of the most infamous trials of the Victorian Age in a style that combines the best elements of fiction and nonfiction writing.
A wealthy elderly lady is found bludgeoned to death in her home in Glasgow in 1908. The Glasgow police glom on to a suspect despite a staggering lack of evidence connecting him to the crime. What then follows is a miscarriage of justice that sets a textbook example of how not to try a case.
Fox deftly captures the zeitgeist of a historic era at the junction of raging social forces. A nation that unapologetically established an empire is paranoid about all the foreigners encroaching on its own turf. Oscar Slater, a man of German-Jewish origins, is framed for the murder of Mrs. Marion Gilchrist by the Glasgow P.D. The incompetence and/or corruption of the police force meet their match with prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. The end result is that Slater served nineteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
The case captured headlines at its time. Despite the prevailing mood of xenophobia, there were many who were sufficiently troubled by the weak case against Slater, and the biased trial that he was subjected to, that there was a persistent effort to see justice done. The attempts to exonerate Slater began to gather steam when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle joins the fight. Conan Doyle – writer, physician, rationalist, veteran, sleuth, gentleman, and a knight of the old order…
At The New York Times where she is a senior writer, Margalit Fox is a member of the obituary news department. I do appreciate stylish send-offs. ‘Conan Doyle for the Defense’ is a study of flawed police procedure and a failed justice system; but it is also a glowing tribute to the literary mastermind who was Holmes and Watson in one.