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Review of 'Conan Doyle for the Defense': How Sherlock Holmes' creator did some true-crime sleuthing of his own

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1913. The writer

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1913. The writer of fictional mysteries also had an interest in true crime. Credit: Library of Congress

CONAN DOYLE FOR THE DEFENSE: The Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer, by Margalit Fox. Random House, 319 pp., $27.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, didn’t just concoct fictional mysteries — he solved real ones. In her entertaining new book, "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," Margalit Fox details the real-life case of Oscar Slater, wrongly imprisoned in 1909 for a murder he did not commit, and the efforts of Conan Doyle to win Slater his freedom. The details of this judicial travesty — unreliable witnesses, dodgy evidence and a series of coincidences that led to Slater's guilty verdict — seem ripped from one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes tales. But it’s a true story.

Fox, author of "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" and a prolific obituary writer for The New York Times, weaves the stories of many figures here — Oscar Slater, the German-Jewish émigré and small-time hood who liked to live well; as well as Conan Doyle, police officials and sundry witnesses. She also details the emergence of modern policing techniques and theories of deduction, none of which were deployed by the authorities who fingered the helpless defendant.

The murder victim was a reclusive elderly woman named Marion Gilchrist, who lived in a modest Glasgow flat. By all accounts, Gilchrist was a rather dour, fearful figure; the door to her flat had three locks. She also had a valuable collection of jewelry. On the evening of December 21, 1908, servant Helen Lambie found Gilchrist dead, her face terribly disfigured by forceful blows. The perpetrator had made off with a crescent-shaped diamond brooch.  

Slater, by chance, had pawned his own diamond brooch. It was one of many coincidences that led police to him. (He was already known to authorities for his shady dealings, gambling among them.) Slater was extradited from New York, where he had joined a friend in business, then brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death. He was spared the ultimate fate by King Edward VII and instead remanded to Peterhead Prison, “Scotland’s Gulag.”

As Fox shows, the case against Slater was monumentally flawed. The pawned diamond brooch was quickly proven not be Gilchrist’s. No matter, “for the police were anxious to produce a suspect, and in Slater — gambler, foreigner, Jew . . . they had found a sublime one,” Fox writes. Lambie claimed to be an eyewitness, but her testimony was over time revealed to be deeply flawed. The police worked the facts, such as they were, to buttress their case, relying on crude stereotyping, class bigotry and theories about racial essences.

A few years after Slater’s conviction, Conan Doyle took up the case. (One of Slater’s lawyers likely persuaded the famous author to look into the matter.) The details and faulty logic of the conviction outraged him: “It is an atrocious story, and as I read it and realized the wickedness of it all, I was moved to do all I could for the man,” he wrote. Conan Doyle had an abiding interest in true crime and had dabbled in sleuthing throughout his life. Working from court transcripts, he built a powerful indictment against the investigation — the faulty brooch clue, the contradictory testimony — which he published in 1912.

He also dismantled the prosecution’s assertion that Slater had fled Glasgow and covered his tracks. He did no such thing; and even if he used the name Otto Sando on his Atlantic voyage, as Conan Doyle observed, “the change of name was for America, and not to throw off any pursuit from Glasgow.” Conan Doyle further deduced that the killer was no stranger at all, and that Lambie likely knew the murderer. (Some have speculated that the killer was Gilchrist’s nephew, but Fox remains agnostic on a definitive ID.)

Despite Conan Doyle’s forensic dismantling of the investigation and trial, sentiment ran high against Slater. He would languish in his “Godforsaken hole” for over a decade more. Conan Doyle would take up Slater’s again case in the mid-1920s, as would William Park, a journalist. The British press tracked down Lambie in Pittsburgh, where she expressed doubts about Slater’s guilt. Other witnesses recanted, forcing the government’s hand. Slater was finally released in 1927. But there would be no happy meeting with Conan Doyle. The author’s sense of honor was offended by Slater’s refusal to compensate Park and the lawyers who had worked his case. The ever-roguish Slater followed his own code: He owed the world nothing.

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