On December 21, 1908, Marion Gilchrist, an elderly, wealthy spinster, was murdered in her flat in Glasgow. The police were immediately on the case, which featured a missing diamond brooch and the eyewitness account of Nellie Lambie, Gilchrist's maid. Within days, the police identified Oscar Slater as the culprit. Slater--"gambler, foreigner, Jew"--was convicted despite shifting eyewitness testimony and dubious evidence, and sentenced to life at Peterhead, Scotland's most notorious prison. It took nearly two decades for justice to prevail, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the mind behind literature's most clever detective, Sherlock Holmes, was the man for the job.
In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margalit Fox (who has penned more than 1,200 obituaries for the New York Times) reconstructs one of the 20th century's most notable miscarriages of justice. Slater, having "managed to become a sterling embodiment of everything that post-Victorian Britain had been taught to fear," stood little chance of a fair trial. Criminology, which identified criminals "before the fact," lingered from the 19th century. It was criminalistics--"scientific, rationalist, exquisitely abductive"--embodied by Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes that would free Slater from his wrongful conviction.
Fox paints vivid portraits of Slater and Conan Doyle through correspondence and court transcripts. Befitting a crime novel of the era, Slater's plea for help was written on a tiny scroll that fellow prisoner William Gordon hid in his dentures upon release from Peterhead. While criminal justice has undoubtedly advanced since the early 1900s, Slater's presumed guilt because of his "otherness" is unfortunately still all too familiar today. --Frank Brasile, librarian