Conan Doyle for the Defence tells the story of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, fought tirelessly to right a terrible miscarriage of justice. Marion Gilchrist, a church going elderly woman from Glasgow was murdered in her home just before Christmas in 1908. Oscar Slater was convicted and sentenced to death, and then had his sentence commuted to life with hard labour. Slater spent 20 years in prison before being released and exonerated.
To help the reader better understand Doyle’s methods and motivations, author Margarlit Fox, a prize winning writer on The New York Times, includes fascinating biographical details. It is believed the character of Holmes and his detective methods were based on one of Doyle’s professors, Joseph Bell at Edinburgh University’s medical school. Doyle became an ophthalmologist which seems entirely appropriate as he viewed the evidence in Slater’s case very differently from the police.
From the casebook of Sherlock Holmes we are familiar with his method – a careful analysis of the evidence and relevant facts – but such were also used by Doyle in the real life cases of Slater and, before him, lawyer George Edalji. Doyle showed that Edalji’s eyesight was so poor that it would have been impossible for him to walk from his home across the countryside, along a train track and into a field and stab horses, all in the dark as he was accused of. Edalji was an easy target for the police as, although a lawyer, he was half Indian and thus ‘not really British’.
Oscar Slater was also a foreigner, a German Jew who was already under police surveillance on suspicion of living on immoral earnings and being a pimp. Part of the initial evidence against Slater was he had pawned a diamond brooch supposedly stolen from the murder scene. In spite of proof that Slater had pawned a different brooch well before the murder, the police fixed on him to the extent that they took witnesses to New York who, after careful coaching and being shown photos, identified him. Because he was seen as a somewhat shady character, living with a prostitute or, at best, a woman who was not his wife, it was easy for the Glasgow police to twist the evidence to fit Slater and they were so sure he was guilty that no other suspects were investigated.
The book is well researched and provides insight into the justice system of the time. In an era where changes in society were so rapid that anything outside the norm was feared, Slater was unlucky enough to attract the Victorian era distrust of foreigners, class prejudice plus anti-Semitic bias, virtually assuring a guilty verdict. Fox further reminds us the fear of foreigners, discrimination and prejudice are still with us today and how those who are not like us can still become scapegoats for society’s ills.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Allen& Unwin
Released: August 2018