Non­fic­tion

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

  • Review
By – October 29, 2018

In 1893, the world was shocked to learn of the death of one of its heroes: Detec­tive Sher­lock Holmes had fall­en off of a cliff while bat­tling his arch neme­sis, Pro­fes­sor Mori­ar­ty. Holmes’s cre­ator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had tired of the char­ac­ter, and killed him off in the sto­ry The Final Prob­lem.” His death was met with such wide­spread back­lash, how­ev­er, that Doyle revived him. The public’s thirst to read about the bril­liant British detec­tive and his adven­tures has bare­ly waned since.

In Fox’s new book, Doyle, not Holmes, is at the cen­ter of a long-for­got­ten crim­i­nal episode that reads like one of his mys­ter­ies. Fox, a for­mer obit­u­ary writer for The New York Times (she com­posed over 1,400 obits), details the inves­ti­ga­tion of, and fall­out from, the mur­der of a wealthy Glas­gow woman in 1908. The lead sus­pect, Oscar Slater, a Ger­man Jew­ish gam­bler, end­ed up being wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed, and impris­oned for close to twen­ty years, in a case dubbed the Scot­tish Drey­fus affair” for the piv­otal role Slater’s eth­nic­i­ty played.

Fox explains that the crime took place when the field of crim­i­nol­o­gy was in its nascent stages. The dis­cov­ery of DNA was decades away, and even fin­ger­print­ing by the police was only slow­ly start­ing to be imple­ment­ed. This is the con­text into which Doyle entered and began his involve­ment in the case, even­tu­al­ly suc­cess­ful­ly free­ing Slater from prison.

In this cap­ti­vat­ing tale, Fox traces the devel­op­ment of Doyle’s career — includ­ing the fact that once his lit­er­ary cre­ation became so famous, requests flood­ed in for him to solve actu­al mys­ter­ies — through his efforts on behalf of Slater. In a par­tic­u­lar­ly cin­e­mat­ic instance, a let­ter smug­gled out of prison in a fake tooth seals Slater’s free­dom. Fox’s writ­ing, clear­ly honed by her years writ­ing obit­u­ar­ies, effort­less­ly bal­ances expert­ly-researched his­tor­i­cal and archival data with the pathos and emo­tion­al nuance of any great dra­ma. Like a clas­sic Holmes yarn, Conan Doyle for the Defense is full of shady under­world char­ac­ters, thiev­ery, inept police offi­cers, and a mys­tery whose his­tor­i­cal set­ting belies its deep rel­e­vance to our own era.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or co-edit­ed 14 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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