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.
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.
An elderly woman whom no one liked was bludgeoned to death in her smart Glasgow flat. Within hours a man whom no one liked either was identified as her killer and, in due course, condemned to hang. The Oscar Slater case is often invoked as an example of how easy it was for the police to fit someone up in an age before DNA, when crime scene protocol mostly consisted of slapping handcuffs on the nearest wrong ’un. But its broader message is perhaps: if you want to stay alive, it helps if people like you ... Within a few days of Gilchrist’s murder it became clear that Slater’s pawn ticket did not relate to the stolen brooch, that his trip to New York had been planned weeks earlier and that he bore no resemblance to the man seen fleeing the flat. Put simply, the police were fitting Slater up, quite possibly to cover for the real murderer who was rumoured to be a member of Gilchrist’s own family ... the flaws in the police case are so blindingly obvious that even Dr Watson would have smelled a rat ... Fox has worked hard to reshape a classic Edwardian murder case to make it fit with our times.
William Roughead (a Glasgow Lawyer and writer)...attended the trial of Oscar Slater in Glasgow in May 1909, writing it up for the Notable Scottish Trials series. He believed that the guilty verdict, arrived at after barely an hour of deliberation, was wrong ... Roughead broadcast his disbelief in Slater’s guilt from the first, to anyone who would listen, enjoining the most famous detective fiction writer in the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his cause. Conan Doyle For the Defense cannot resist structuring itself as a detective novel, though the whodunit is less about who killed Marion Gilchrist and more about who framed Oscar Slater ... The ingredients are too good to pass up: a famous detective novelist actually playing detective, a man serving time for a murder he did not commit, and a criminal justice system slowly, and reluctantly, reckoning with the advent of forensic science—fingerprints were around when Slater was arrested and convicted, but in one of so many missed opportunities to right the wrong, never used ... How the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories fought for—and ultimately turned against—a man wrongfully convicted.