Sherlock Holmes not a real crime fighter, but his creator was

"Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer," by Margalit Fox, is published by Random House, 319 pages, $27.

Even now, it is said, people still send letters to Sherlock Holmes, asking for the great detective's help in solving a crime or righting an injustice. In the past, some of these requests would be addressed to his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was frequently thought to be the "real" Holmes. Chivalric and public-spirited to the core, Conan Doyle — whose gravestone is tellingly engraved "Steel true, blade straight"— championed many causes, most notably bringing public attention to the wrongful imprisonment of two men guilty of nothing except being outsiders in early-20th-century Britain.

The case of Oscar Slater involves a far graver miscarriage of justice. In her artful and compelling "Conan Doyle for the Defense," Margalit Fox — who was until recently the senior obituary writer for The New York Times — emphasizes that it too revolves around the period's xenophobia, coupled with anti-Semitism. Just as today's Muslims and African-Americans suffer from racial profiling, so Oscar Slater — a dandyish German Jew and gambler, who kept an apparent prostitute as a mistress — was tailor-made for any crime the Glasgow police wanted to pin on him. Why not the beating death of the elderly Marion Gilchrist?

Gilchrist's head had been violently smashed into bloody pulp. Strangely enough, none of the valuables and cash in plain sight were taken; only one diamond brooch was missing. Soon after the investigation began in earnest, the police learned that Oscar Slater — who had been on their radar for some time — was trying to sell a redemption ticket for a pawned diamond brooch. He immediately, almost reflexively, emerged as the murder's chief, indeed only, suspect.

Once Conan Doyle committed to re-examining the supposed evidence against Slater, he used all the analytic powers of a Sherlock Holmes to blast holes in the crown's case. But by this time, the establishment had closed ranks, staunchly refusing to reconsider the verdict despite new evidence and revised testimony. Only after Slater had served nearly 18 1/2 years was his conviction overturned on what amounted to a judicial technicality. He died in 1948 at the age of 76.

Notwithstanding Conan Doyle's admirable determination to see justice done, Fox notes that even he disapproved of Slater the man. So she aims to rehabilitate Slater's character by quoting extensively from his tender correspondence with his mother and sisters in Germany. She also suggests that prison might have left Slater slightly unhinged, which may explain why he stiffed Conan Doyle for his legal fees, despite having received a considerable financial reparation from the government.

Fox's book isn't the first devoted to the Slater case — she quotes frequently from Peter Hunt's account and William Roughead's volume in the Notable British Trials series — but it is written with authority and panache, though I could have done without the melodramatic foreshadowing. To enlarge her scope, Fox allocates several chapters to Conan Doyle's life, the early history of detective fiction, the origins of Sherlock Holmes and contemporary theories of criminology. Still, she always retells even familiar stories in clever ways and her narrative momentum never flags. As a result, "Conan Doyle for the Defense" will captivate almost any reader while being pure catnip for the devotee of true-crime writing.

Recommended for you

Load comments