Conan Doyle for the Defence was a real treat for someone who loves historical true crime and into the bargain I got to know a little more about the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The true crime is the brutal murder of Marion Gilchrist. A wealthy elderly spinster who lived in a secure apartment, almost paranoid about her precious jewels being stolen. She was pretty much estranged from most of her family and lived with her maid Helen Lambie in a tightly organised fashion as you’d expect from a woman of her class. On 21 December 1908 Helen Lambie left the house to buy the paper and by the time she returned a little more than ten minutes later, her employer was dead. Fortunately Helen, along with the downstairs neighbour had caught a passing glimpse of the murderer and she was also able to identify a missing diamond crescent-shaped brooch.
The police were involved and from the passing of time it is clear to see that the man they pursued, a Jewish man called Oscar Slater, was done for all the wrong reasons. Margalit Fox takes us through the anti-Semitic sentiment of the times and the fear of those immoral trades which Oscar also seemed to be caught up in.
The author also treats us to an explanation of how easy it is to identify the wrong man, especially if the police kindly give some clues as to who they think is the perpetrator of a crime.
To cut a long, but interesting story short, Oscar Slater is convicted of murder and Conan Doyle became interested in the case, but equally interestingly, he didn’t rate the man himself. The author then draws parallels between Conan Doyle’s work as a doctor and the skills needed to solve a crime. Working back from what is known, the symptoms or the body through the absolute facts. Something that didn’t happen with the police work carried out in Glasgow when Marion Gilchrist’s body was found! There are also parallels between Conon Doyle’s deductive skills (I’m not going to mention the lengthy explanation on how he actually practiced abduction) and those of his fictional detective which the author ascribes to his mentor at medical school who used his own keen observations to work out a person’s profession, address and other details from the mud on his shoe or the amount of lint on his hat.
I was absolutely fascinated by this read, there was a lot of information and one couldn’t help but wonder how Oscar coped with nearly two decades of being in Petershead prison with his family far away in Germany. When you consider he had no correspondence with them for the entirety of the WWI his fortitude is even more astounding.
Of course any book of this nature can if care is not taken to take an incredulous tone, it is after all easy to be wise at this distance of time, but the author did keep any such observations relevant to the time of the crime, relaying the disquiet of the wider public once the initial hysteria had died down. All in all this was a sad episode in criminal justice and it is thanks to Conan Doyle that the case was re-examined. Interestingly Oscar Slater was one of the reasons that the appeals court was set up. One of many, many interesting facts I learnt from Margalit Fox!
I’d like to thank the publishers Profile Books for allowing me to read an advance copy of Conan Doyle for the Defence which was published on 21 June 2018.