Book Review | Conan Doyle for the Defense (ARC)

*I received an advance reader’s copy of this book, so I will not directly quote from this, just comment generally.*

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Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox is a fascinating true crime novel about a rather unknown aspect of history, especially for those of us in America. I can’t say I know much about Glasgow history, much less crimes that happened there. So reading this was quite entertaining and interesting.

The book outlines what is known about the case, the murder of an elderly woman named Miss Gilchrist. We hear about the witnesses’ statements, then about the search for the suspect, Oscar Slater. Then, in quite meticulous detail, Fox describes the trial and Slater’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment. Especially at this point, we realize just how timely this book is — so much of this case is based on prejudice, xenophobia, and profiling. The fact that Slater is not only a Jewish man but also has a lifestyle that the uptight, intolerant Victorians do not approve of makes this story quite similar to current events.

This book does not just chronicle this crime and investigation, though of course that is the main point. It also focuses on Conan Doyle’s life, particularly his own formidable skills at what his great creation Holmes calls “the science of deduction.” Fox takes us through the inspiration for the stories, Dr. Joseph Bell, and how the logical reasoning he employed — more accurately called “abduction” as opposed to “deduction” — inspired Conan Doyle. So getting a glimpse behind the famous detective and his creator added weight to Conan Doyle’s decision to help Slater.

The endgame of the novel is clear from the beginning — Fox tells in the description of the book, in fact, that Conan Doyle’s efforts get Slater, wrongly convicted, released from jail — but the path to that point, and who the real killer is, is what keeps the reader invested. Furthermore, I was surprised to find out about the tense, distant, rather volatile relationship between Slater and Conan Doyle. Particularly in the chapter “The Knight and the Knave” we see the complexities between their interaction; Conan Doyle, while a bit of a progressive Victorian, still possessed many of the attitudes so prevalent then, and Slater’s brash, dandy, unconventional (again, for the time) clashes with that in an engrossing way, and I really enjoyed reading about it.

I loved reading Conan Doyle for the Defense. Fox has a great narrative voice that helps this to read somewhere between a murder mystery novel and a more serious nonfiction. The exploration of the society of the day, the culture of Glasgow, the crime itself, the behavior and procedures of the police force, the origin of Holmes’ brilliance, and the Conan Doyle–Slater relationship make this a detailed, comprehensive look at this story. Every aspect is well-researched, well-written, and well-presented. I think this book would appeal to many people, particularly fans of the mystery genre and specifically, the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s rare for me to say this, but I think I’d like to read this again, as I’m sure there’s more to get out of it for me than the first time around!

Overall rating: 9/10

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