Book Review: Conan Doyle For The Defense

Conan Doyle For The Defense:  The True Story Of A Sensational British Murder, A Quest For Justice, And The World’s Most Famous Detective Novel, by Margalit Fox

In general, I have to say that this is a very good book.  It is fairly easy for someone to want to write something newish about Arthur Conan Doyle, and I have witnessed the way that contemporary writers like to gain clout through referring to Sherlock Holmes.  This book does a good job at pointing out Conan Doyle’s humanity while also discussing some of the unpleasant aspects of early 20th century European life in its widespread anti-Semitism.  As someone who has a bit of a beat when it comes to this pervasive problem [1], I have to admit that this particular case is one that I had not heard of before but it is one that does not surprise me given the universal desire for authorities to find scapegoats in times of dislocating cultural change and the ease in which Jews have made suitable scapegoats throughout history to the present-day.  For those who are similarly interested in problems of law and order and justice, or Arthur Conan Doyle, there is much to appreciate here.

In about 250 pages the author discusses the murder of a wealthy spinster, Marion Gilchrist, and its consequences.  The author sets up the story with an introduction that points out the cultural importance of the case to early 20th century Scotland and then begins with a discussion of the crime itself and the mysterious question of the identity of the murderer (I).  After this the author discusses the way that the case went awry from the start due to prejudice and bad logic (II).  A discussion of the farce of the trial of Oscar Slater follows (III), including the initial involvement of Conan Doyle, who had become known for defending people in such situations as being unjustly imprisoned for reasons of prejudice.  It is in the fourth and final part of the book that the author discusses the various repercussions of the case, including the ruin of an honest cop whose career was blackened by his unwillingness to go along with the injustice committed against Slater, the experience that Slater had in prison, and what became of Slater and his family as well as the others involved in the case, including the melancholy discussion of Slater’s Jewish relatives who were largely murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps.

It is unclear what the takeaway of a book like this is supposed to be.  It is one thing to acknowledge wrongs done in the past, but police investigations of prominent murders have often involved political angles and there is no way that contemporary societies can ensure that this sort of miscarriage of justice does not happen, not least when we have the same fears and concerns about others and outsiders and unwanted cultural changes resulting from demographic shifts in society.  Likewise, it is fine to praise Conan Doyle, but doing so should not blind us to his somewhat more daffy and foolish ideas (like spiritualism) or to the way that he had some of the flaws as well as virtues of the late Victorian gentleman.  This is a book that is very easy to read and appreciate and to think about, but it appears as if the author wants more than this, but does not quite know how to go about encouraging the reader to move beyond the text and to ponder the contemporary issues of injustice that exist because of questions of political identity, which are far less easy to wrestle with because we are not far from them.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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