Decades before the dawn of modern celebrity, Arthur Conan Doyle understood that he could use his fame to influence public opinion. As Margalit Fox notes in “Conan Doyle for the Defense,” the creator of Sherlock Holmes lobbied top lawmakers and penned a “ceaseless flow of letters to newspapers on issues he held dear.”

Conan Doyle was particularly outspoken about the ways in which Britain’s divorce laws were unfair to women, and he helped free a man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for a bizarre animal mutilation.

It was in this spirit that he published “The Case of Oscar Slater,” an urgent book meant to overturn an evidently innocent man’s murder conviction.

A longtime New York Times obituary writer known for her appealing prose, Fox recounts a real-life story that bears a measure of Holmes-ian intrigue. In her absorbing new book, her subject’s faith in “the combined palliatives of reason and honor” is on full display, even as he’s tested by a deplorable law enforcement team.

Just before Christmas in 1908, 82-year-old Marion Gilchrist was beaten to death in her Glasgow, Scotland, home. A brooch was stolen during the crime, and when police learned that Oscar Slater, a foreign-born gambler, had a similar item, they arrested him. It soon emerged that Slater had pawned his brooch before the murder, but the authorities were undeterred. A jury deliberated for about an hour before convicting him, and he was given a life sentence.

Three years later, encouraged by Slater’s lawyer, Conan Doyle studied the case. He came to believe that Slater was innocent, and when he said so in print, Conan Doyle became the prisoner’s most prominent advocate.

Conan Doyle’s “The Case of Oscar Slater,” published in 1912, enumerates the many weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. According to the novelist, police formed mistaken assumptions about crucial evidence and misinterpreted Slater’s movements after the murder. In a case that depended heavily on eyewitnesses, their statements included major inconsistencies. That Slater was German-born and Jewish seemed only to embolden some investigators.

“The bottom fell out of the original case,” Conan Doyle writes, but police “persevered in the hope that vague identifications of a queer-looking foreigner would justify their original action.”

Fox relates these events in an efficient manner, presenting a brisk analysis of a prosecution plagued by “damnable logical errors.” Her extensive research into turn-of-the-century Scotland results in enlightening chapters about the era’s tensions, such as the battle between ancient bigotries and a surging faith in scientific inquiry.

Were this one of Conan Doyle’s fictional tales, logic would’ve prevailed after the publication of his book. In reality, “The Case of Oscar Slater” had little immediate influence. Conan Doyle stepped away, then redoubled his advocacy before the saga took a final twist — one that reshaped Slater’s life and the British justice system’s appeals process. To judge by Fox’s fine book, none of this would have happened if the famed author had stayed on the sidelines.

 

Kevin Canfield is a New York-based writer and critic.

Conan Doyle for the Defense
By: Margalit Fox.
Publisher: Random House, 319 pages, $27.