Book review: Conan Doyle for the Defense

Conan Doyle for the DefenseConan Doyle for the Defense:
The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer

by  Margalit Fox
Random House

Genre: Nonfiction/True crime/History/Biography
352 pages


This brilliant nonfiction reads like a thriller, both because of its topic and because of the writer’s skill at structuring her story.

Conan Doyle for the Defense is about what was supposedly  “one of the most notorious murders of its age”, a bit like a “Scottish Dreyfus affair”.

A case all too common: a rich old woman was robbed and killed in Glasgow, and for various reasons explained in the book, the police targeted Oscar Slater, a German Jewish gambler, even though they soon had evidence he could not have done it.
“An innocent man was pursued, tried, convicted, and nearly hanged”, a “supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy”, of “judicial and prosecutorial misconduct.” A “disgraceful frame-up, in which stupidity and dishonesty played an equal part.” Nothing new under the sun…

Oscar would have been put to death and quickly forgotten, if it had not been for his defender: Arthur Conan Doyle.
After some unsuccessful efforts, he later on went back to the case, and working from documents, he relentlessly spent the last two decades of his life on it, until Oscar was finally freed, after more than 18 years of hard labor at the “Scotland’s gulag”: His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead. I didn’t know anything about this prison, and the passages on it were fascinating.

Conan Doyle is presented like “a crusader— repeatedly beseeched by members of the public to solve real-life mysteries”. And he did manage “successful feats of amateur detection on more than one occasion.” In his life of true-crime investigator, the Slater case is definitely the most extraordinary.
The author shows how he actually used Sherlock Holmes’ method of detection to resolve the mystery around this actual murder.

And the way Slater managed to send a plea for help to Conan Doyle in 1925 is worthy of a great thriller – in fact, there was something similar in the French thriller Crossing the Line. I wonder if Frédérique Molay got her idea from this fact.

I enjoyed how the chapters were structured, showing the various facets of the story like different clues in a murder investigation.

The book can be read at a deeper level both as a wonderful sociological analysis of the period and a great example of literary critique, at the crossroad between facts and literature, especially about the role of detective novel in the Victorian and post-Victorian eras.

How fitting that Slater’s greatest champion was both a medical doctor and the father of the literary figure who remains the supreme incarnation of the Victorian detective.
If Oscar Slater was the incarnation of late Victorian fears, then Arthur Conan Doyle embodied most of the era’s sterling qualities.
Chapter 3

Between its social paranoia and its scientific advances, the Victorian era was preoccupied with identifying and vanquishing invaders: microbes, criminals, foreigners.
Chapter 4

Late nineteenth-century scientific method and the late nineteenth-century literary detective were poised for sublime convergence.
Chapter 5

There are presentations of other essential detective novels, and a chapter on Joseph Bell, “The Original Sherlock Holmes.”

The book contains a glossary and many references and notes.

VERDICT: A must read for all Sherlock Holmes’ fan. A well researched piece of literary critique.

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What’s your favorite true crime book?

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher through Netgalley. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


13 thoughts on “Book review: Conan Doyle for the Defense

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