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In 1905, Great Britain passed the Aliens Act, which, as Margalit Fox explains in her new non-fiction thriller CONAN DOYLE FOR THE DEFENSE, 'severely curtailed immigration from outside the British Empire', with the unstated but evident objective of excluding a major immigrant group from continental Europe: Jews. Anti-Semitism was a pervasive reality in early twentieth-century Europe. The 'Dreyfus Affair' – France's wrongful conviction, imprisonment, and later exoneration of the Jewish army officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus – had fascinated the continent for a decade, and prominent British intellectuals weren't immune to the assumption that Dreyfus was guilty. That, for example, was the initial belief of George Bernard Shaw, a progressive in many other ways.
Three years later, in 1908, a Glasgow court convicted a Jewish professional gambler, Oscar Slater (nee Oskar Leschziner, of Oppeln, Silesia), of the murder of a reclusive octogenarian heiress, Marion Gilchrist. She had been bludgeoned to death in her fashionable West Princes Street row house, and a diamond brooch was missing.
The police interviewed witnesses, including Gilchrist's maid, Helen Lambie, then zeroed in on Slater, because he had pawned a diamond brooch--of a markedly different design, and weeks before the murder. Once they realized their mistake, they couldn't give up their suspect. After all, was he not a foreigner, a man of ill repute (his cohabitating girlfriend was a prostitute with an exotic French name), and, most of all, an immigrant and a Jew?
The leading criminologists of the time, such as the now deeply discredited Cesare Lombroso, insisted that criminality was heredity, atavistic, and stamped on the features. Influenced by such ideas, Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson had more or less agreed in THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886). This ideology ultimately sent Slater to the fearsome prison at Peterhead, for over eighteen years.
His release was due to a fellow prisoner and a few writers, primarily Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and, as Fox's subtitle claims, the world's most famous author of detective stories. A spiritualist ridiculed for his belief in fairies and in visitations from the dead, Conan Doyle had to prove the accuracy of his methods – and quickly, as Slater had vowed to commit suicide should he complete twenty years' incarceration at Peterhead.
Fox's account of Conan Doyle's activism--the most detailed and the first to be published in the United States – is a riveting read, with unfortunately modern parallels, particularly in Fox's country. She also makes a convincing case for Conan Doyle's ability to see what others would not being dependent upon his particular combination of medical training and experience constructing Holmes's cases and his rational unraveling of them. Yes, literature can restore justice and save lives.
In showing how Conan Doyle strives to exonerate Slater, Fox also reveals an angle of his personality that is not usually acknowledged: his willingness to risk his own reputation by involving himself in an unpopular cause, with unimaginable perseverance. One can easily imagine Holmes reacting to the Slater case in precisely the same way. Furthermore, one might wonder if the incompetent, lazy, racist Glasgow police behavior provoked Conan Doyle by reminding him of his creation Lestrade.
Although on several occasions, Fox points out that Slater was understood as a kind of 'Scottish Dreyfus', more could have been said about l'affaire Dreyfus itself and the way it shaped the views of a generation of Europeans – many of whom would still be alive to see the rise of Nazism. Indeed, one of the more haunting passages in Conan Doyle for the Defense points out that Slater's two sisters, one of whom faithfully wrote him letters during his imprisonment after the death of his equally vigilant mother, were both murdered by the Nazis, at the concentration camps in Theresienstadt and Treblinka.
However, in another way, Fox's judicious containment of the narrative serves the book well. In recent years, a few Scottish newspapers and crime bloggers have published speculations about the real murderer of Marion Gilchrist. The Glasgow police suppressed Helen Lambie's information about a member of the extended, estranged Gilchrist family. At least two men of that prominent family might have been the one in question, but it seems difficult to tell which. Fox doesn't allow this question to distract her from Slater's ordeal or Doyle's campaign. Declaring herself an "agnostic" on the identity of the actual murderer, she makes it clear that it was definitely not Slater.
Fox's book is a must-read for any Sherlockian, any reader of true crime, and anyone concerned about the likely effects of contemporary anti-immigration and anti-semitic moral panic. As such a bellwether, CONAN DOYLE FOR THE DEFENSE is more frightening than THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, July 2018
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