Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Conan Doyle for the Defence – Margalit Fox


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.

First Published UK: 21 June 2018
Publisher: Profile Books
No of Pages: 344
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Out of the Silence – Wendy James

Historical Fiction  5*'s
Historical Fiction

I love history, particularly social history that explores the lives of women, and this book fits really well into this area of interest. Wendy James has taken the real life story of a young girl named Maggie Heffernan who lived in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century and added a fictional background to the crime she was tried for. To complement Maggie’s story we also have Elizabeth Hamilton’s story, a slightly older woman, an unwilling spinster, who works as a governess and later at a school run by Vida Goldstein. For those of you who know as little about Australian history as I do, in 1903, Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election in a national parliament, woman having been given the vote much earlier in Australia than either the UK or the US. As Elizabeth’s story unfolds she gives an insight into the suffragette movement in Australia at this time as seen through a bystanders view rather than with the full force of Vida’s passion for the cause.

Maggie’s story is told in the first person and follows her movement from eldest daughter helping her rather cold mother out at home in the fabulously named Dederang, to being shipped off to the nearby town of Yackandandah to help out relations before moving away on her own accord gaining a permanent position as a servant. All through her narrative I knew that her love affair with Jack Hardy was doomed and yet I still hoped that the ending would be different so affected was I by the voice Wendy James gave her.

Being caught out in this dress is shame enough, but just as he comes by I am squeezed right down the front of the cart, poking about as if hunting for something or other, so he comes upon me unawares an when he asks, ‘Is everything all right miss? Can I help you with anything?’ I am not expecting it and hit my shin hard on the bench.
When I have recovered enough to speak, I ask him what he thinks he is doing, what sort of fool is he to come creeping up on a person in such a way?
‘My apologies, miss,’ he says, ‘but I wouldn’t say I was creeping – this is a public path, y’know, an thee was nowhere else for me to walk. I just thought you might have been in some difficulty, being all doubled over like that…’
‘It was nothing,’ I tell him. ‘I had… dropped my glove, is all, an was hunting for it.’ This is so plainly a tale – it is as warm a day as we ever get an there’s not a single glove in evidence – that I add in a tone that Ma would be proud of, ‘Which a person’s got a perfect right to do without being frightened out of her wits by a complete stranger.’

Elizabeth’s story is told through her journal entries and letters to her brother who is in New York, far away from their birthplace in Edinburgh, this is much drier in tone and consequently it took longer for me to get as emotionally involved in her story, which although much less dramatic than Maggie’s, illustrates how for many women the only way they would feel fulfilled was to marry but Elizabeth’s fiancé had died in a tragic accident shortly before she moved to Melbourne. Elizabeth’s story also gives us the insight into Vida’s life, a woman who has decided that improving the lives of woman and children was her goal and this couldn’t be combined with marriage. In fact all three women were fighting against not only circumstance but the freedom to have any real choices about their lives.

9 May

First typing class today. Girls very enthusiastic. Only one parent objecting to it calling it an unnecessary evil. The same parent, incidentally, who opposed his daughter’s algebra lessons. The girls father is a member of the lower house, formerly a grocer who mae his fortune during the gold rush. She tells us he can’t see the point (and nor can she for that matter). Why train her to do things she’ll never need? not as if she’ll ever have to earn her living he says. Which is fortunate, really… 

These lives collide when Maggie is arrested and Vida organised a campaign both during and after the trial which successfully proved to her country that she was able to run such a sustained media blitz, helped by the fact that she didn’t fit the stereotypical view of a suffragette. With Elizabeth on hand to help Vida out with the campaign and accompanying her on visits to Maggie these three women, with very different backgrounds meet.

Wendy James doesn’t judge any of the three women featured in this book, although the facts are overlaid with fiction and maybe Maggie’s story is given the most positive spin possible, it was still eminently believable and I didn’t get the feeling that sometimes happens in these types of books, that the author wanted me to come to a certain conclusion, rather she had confidence that her story was enough and the reader could make their own mind up about the choices made by each of the women.

I can’t wait to read more books by Wendy James, this is easily my favourite read of the year so far, admittedly aided by my keen interest in the subject matter but definitely enhanced by the sheer quality of the writing.

More Historical Crime

The Murder Tree – Alan Veale
Not Guilty – Christine Gardner
Death at the Priory – James Ruddick
Quiet Dell – Jayne Anne Phillips