Conan Doyle for the Defense

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There have been biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle before, but none quite like Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defense. Looking at the true story about one specific incident in Doyle’s life in this book, Sherlock Holmes himself could be proud. 

After the wealthy Marion Gilchrist was murdered in her home in Glasgow just before Christmas 1908, suspicion immediately covers Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant. Doyle himself is not without prejudice as he reflects the common wisdom of the time in his description of criminals in Sing Sing, “abnormalities of cranium or features which made it clear that they were not wholly responsible for their actions.” Moral, ethnic, anti-immigrant, and those same physical appearance biases and unreliable witnesses soon have Slater convicted and sentenced to hard labor in an inhumane Scottish prison. His cell had one 18” square window, a sleeping hammock secured to two walls, and a narrow iron table that folded down from one wall.

Slater is finally rescued by sending a message requesting Doyle’s intervention. On his release, William Gordon carries it out of prison in a tiny pellet note surrounded by a scrap of glazed paper to resist moisture, hidden beneath his dentures. Doyle would use Sherlockian methods to show the injustice of the conviction. When Slater was finally released, he had spent eighteen years, four months, and six days in his cell. 

After an analysis of the case, Doyle wrote to the secretary of Scotland, “. . . I am personally convinced that Slater never knew that such a woman as the deceased ever existed until he was accused of her murder.” 

The twists and turns, along with Doyle’s mental gymnastics as he solves the problem will entertain both lovers of Sherlock and his kind of mysteries and those whose leanings run to nonfiction and biography. I read an advance reading copy furnished by Net Galley of this book that goes on sale June 26.