New York Times senior writer Fox brings to life a forgotten cause célèbre in this page-turning account of how mystery-writer-turned-real life sleuth Arthur Conan Doyle helped exonerate a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder.
The loving letters he [Slater] wrote from jail to his parents and sisters in Silesia, sampled by Ms. Fox, form a poignant counterpoint to the impersonal rhetoric of the police report, law court and newspaper story.
Ms. Fox, a former obituary writer for the New York Times, has an eye for the telling detail, a forensic sense of evidence and a relish for research. She weighs the material evidence that, at one point, put Slater’s life in the balance ... Along the way, she explores conflicting schools in early 20th-century criminal investigation as well ... As for the Slater case, the approach was a hodge-podge of inadequate evidence and testimony and opportunistically wishful thinking, as Ms. Fox shows so vividly. So in the end, whodunnit? ... If you fancy yourself a second Sherlock Holmes—or Conan Doyle, for that matter—the game is still afoot.
One of the great successes of the book is the way it balances narrative drive with the wider social and criminological context ... She also delves into Victorian and Edwardian criminology, noting how police did not then seek clues in the crime scene, as they might do today, so much as read them 'directly off the criminal' — off his character, his morals, even the shape of his head ... This is a first-class book: pacy, insightful and lucid. And although it is never done heavy-handedly, it reveals some of the disturbing ways in which the Edwardian era echoes in our own.
All of this is developed with brio by Fox. She is excellent in linking the 19th-century creation of policing and detection with the development of both detective fiction and the science of forensics ... Fox’s historical knowledge skates on thin ice ... phrases like the vague 'industrialization had urbanized Glasgow' are simply filler ... A more rounded — perhaps even more jaundiced — picture of Conan Doyle would also have been welcome.