What is this about?: The case of Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant to the UK who was pursued across to the USA because the Scottish police basically needed to arrest someone for a murder, and what’s better than an immigrant, with a funny name – and Jewish to boot.
What else is this about?: Semi-autobiographical content about Conan Doyle, his life and his work.
For all the scores of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in the world, there is no recent book that tells this remarkable story–in which Conan Doyle becomes a real-life detective on an actual murder case. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margalit Fox takes us step by step inside Conan Doyle’s investigative process and illuminates a murder mystery that is also a morality play for our time–a story of ethnic, religious, and anti-immigrant bias.
In 1908, a wealthy woman was brutally murdered in her Glasgow home. The police found a convenient suspect in Oscar Slater–an immigrant Jewish cardsharp–who, despite his obvious innocence, was tried, convicted, and consigned to life at hard labor in a brutal Scottish prison. Conan Doyle, already world famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was outraged by this injustice and became obsessed with the case. Using the methods of his most famous character, he scoured trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and eyewitness statements, meticulously noting myriad holes, inconsistencies, and outright fabrications by police and prosecutors. Finally, in 1927, his work won Slater’s freedom.
Margalit Fox, a celebrated longtime writer for The New York Times, has “a nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens-level gift for concisely conveying personality” (Kathryn Schulz, New York). In Conan Doyle for the Defense, she immerses readers in the science of Edwardian crime detection and illuminates a watershed moment in the history of forensics, when reflexive prejudice began to be replaced by reason and the scientific method.
Let me start with some perspective I didn’t expect myself on Conan Doyle for the Defence: (and yes, there’s a shitload more that went down in Australian politics than this, but whatever, it was a Wednesday, and apparently time for a new PM) a couple of weeks ago an Australian member of Parliament stood up and gave a speech about how Australia needed a “final solution” to the problem of Muslim immigration (or immigration in general, I don’t quite recall bc it was vomitous speech by a piece-of-crap human). Naturally, this person said he didn’t know Hitler used that term to describe his “final solution to the Jewish problem” way back when in World War II, but hey he must have missed that class in school and university, and in general forgot how to read.
This stellar, stellar example of the racist bullshit Muslims (and immigrants in general) have to put up with is pretty much what got Oscar Slater arrested, tried and convicted – essentially because a white man couldn’t be the murderer, and the other, the person of colour, the immigrant had to be the guilty party.
Just when you think times have changed, they really haven’t.
The other, the immigrant, the person of colour…
This theme of the the “other” is one that runs through Conan Doyle for the Defence as Marglit Fox explains the culture, and the society that cast Slater in the role of murderer way back when. She explores the study of criminology, and the thinking that people of colour, people who are other looked like criminals, and that thinking became somewhat of a “scientific practice” in that time.
The book was less of an exploration of the actual case than I expected. Fox writes a somewhat semi-autobiographical book about Conan Doyle, exploring some of his background, his childhood and his influences – sometimes in more detail than I cared for. However, I still kept going hoping for something more meaty in terms of the case this book is supposed to be about.
I guess she came through in some ways for she also explores the trial of a young Indian lawyer, who was tried and arrested and sent to prison for three years because he had myopia. Not even kidding. As Doyle describes it, his condition was so severe, he looked… well, weird… and so naturally, to the English it made sense that he was involved in the occult, and the perfect suspect to be mutilating ponies in the dark, and writing racist letters to himself, and as I recall to a newspaper (or maybe it was the police) outing himself as the culprit.
Because that’s how criminals rolled back then when they didn’t want to get caught.
Then of course, Conan Doyle came along. Did you know Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist? Yeah. Still makes you wonder how the guy’s defense team didn’t wonder why their lawyer-client had to hold things up to his face to read.
The Case of Oscar Slater
What the book tells of his background, of his unwavering desire to do the honourable thing at all times, for instance, is eye-opening and interesting. Some of the anecdotes make him seem somewhat rigid in some of his beliefs, but others tell of a man you can’t help but admire for staying true to himself, and to being honourable.
It also delves into the science of deduction that influenced Conan Doyle and Sherlock, and how the former used it to great effect in his stories and in solving real-life crimes.
While the book explores Conan Doyle, there’s not much to tell of Oscar Slater, which you know he was locked up in a prison for 20 years, so that’s to be expected. Instead, the book makes readers empathise with him by focusing on his letters to his parents, and then later his other family members to show how he tried to stay hopeful. Unfortunately, after a time, it gets repetitive and explains why this book is less about the case than the title would suggest.
The ending of the case in real life is not the best outcome, and for me at least indicative of Conan Doyle’s inability to let things go, weirdly enough, or allow for the complexities of how humans react to things. His feud with Slater seems petty in all honesty.
Overall, this was a book that didn’t fulfil my expectations of a true-crime novel focused on one case, or the impression I got from the blurb. That’s not to say it didn’t provide interesting insight into the life and times of Conan Doyle, and Slater. Some parts did drag, but there was enough to keep me going to wonder how this case would end.