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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox
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The case at the heart of Margalit Fox’s “first-class book” is “just the kind that would have roused Sherlock Holmes”, said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. On 21 December 1908, a wealthy spinster, Marion Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. The motive seemed obvious – a diamond brooch was missing – and the police, under huge pressure to solve the crime, identified a petty criminal named Oscar Slater as the culprit. Despite little evidence against him, Slater was convicted and sentenced to death – but this was commuted to life imprisonment. The case attracted the interest of Arthur Conan Doyle who in 1912, applying the “methods of his best-known fictional creation”, published a “brilliantly Holmesian” book devoted to proving that Slater had been framed. In the short term this achieved little – Slater remained in the “notoriously tough Peterhead prison” – but Doyle continued to campaign on his behalf, and eventually, in 1927, the conviction was quashed.

This wasn’t Doyle’s first foray into real-life detective work, said Paula Byrne in The Times. A few years earlier he had campaigned for the release of George Edalji, a solicitor imprisoned for maiming a pony (a case that would inspire Julian Barnes’s 2005 novel Arthur & George). Edalji’s background was Parsee and Doyle believed he’d been “treated unjustly in part because of his foreignness”. The same went for Slater, a German-Jewish immigrant whose real name was Oscar Leschziner. This was an age when some still believed that criminality could be deduced from a person’s appearance, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. “You only had to look at a man’s shifty eyes, weak mouth and, perhaps most significant at a time of rising anti-Semitism, big nose, to know that he was on the point of doing something very bad indeed.” Yet against this, Fox shows that a new system of forensic science, based on the close reading of clues, was becoming established. Holmes, of course, was its most famous exemplar – and Fox argues that Doyle deployed the modus operandi of his creation in order to establish Slater’s innocence.

There was an unfortunate coda to the case, said Paula Byrne. After his release, Slater and Doyle became embroiled in a “bitter rift” over the former’s £6,000 compensation, which Doyle felt he should share with those who had helped him. The public slanging match that ensued is the final twist in a “fast-paced”, enjoyable work that is written with the “panache of a Holmes short story”.