Book review: Conan Doyle for the Defence, by Margalit Fox

Arthur Conan Doyle PIC: Getty Images
Arthur Conan Doyle PIC: Getty Images
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Margalit Fox, recently retired from her position as chief obituary writer for the New York Times, has addressed one of the most shameful miscarriages of justice in Scottish legal history – the conviction of Oscar Slater for the murder of Marion Gilchrist in 1908 – and the part played by Arthur Conan Doyle in Slater’s eventual release and exoneration after almost 20 years in Peterhead Prison. There is no doubt now that Slater was innocent, and there should never have been any. Fox, unlike some who have written about the case, isn’t interested in speculating about who actually killed Miss Gilchrist. She does touch on the question in the last chapter of her lucid and engaging book, but sensibly observes that “any ‘solution’ advanced 11 decades after the fact can only be the product of undiluted speculation”.

Marion Gilchrist, an 82 year-old spinster with a passion for jewels, was brutally murdered in her flat in West Princes Street, Glasgow on the evening of 21 December 1908. The crime was committed in a brief period when her maid Helen Lambie had been sent out to buy an evening paper. There was no sign of forced entry. It seemed that Miss Gilchrist had admitted her killer. Though robbery was assumed to be the motive, only one piece of jewellery, a diamond brooch, was taken. It was never recovered.

Slater was a German Jew who had recently returned to Glasgow along with his girlfriend, alleged to be a prostitute, with the implication that Slater was her pimp. The police seem to have fixed on Slater because he seemed a disreputable character. The only links to the crime were a pawned diamond brooch, some dubious eye-witness identification, and the discovery that he and his girlfriend were about to leave for the USA. He had pawned his brooch weeks before the murder, and booked his steamship tickets too. Yet the Glasgow police were so sure that he was their man that no other possibilities were investigated. Slater was arrested on arrival in New York. Witnesses were brought over to identify him, having already been carefully coached. The police work was incompetent and dishonest, and one policeman who recognised this would find his career ruined.

If the investigation was a disgrace, so was the trial. The Crown case was dishonestly presented. The defence was weak. The judge was biased, his directions to the jury incompetent. Slater was found guilty and condemned to death. Scotland then had no Court of Appeal in criminal cases, but his admirable solicitor sent a “memorial” to the Secretary of State, drawing attention to the weakness of the case, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.

Conan Doyle was alerted to the case quite early. He investigated it employing, Fox insists, the methods of Sherlock Holmes, using, some might say, only reason and common sense. He subsequently published The Case of Oscar Slater in 1912. The resultant publicity persuaded the Secretary if State to order a formal inquiry into Slater’s conviction. Its terms were restricted, and the Sheriff who conducted it made a report which led the Secretary of State to conclude that there was no case to justify his interfering with the sentence. It would be another dozen years before Slater’s innocence was at last recognised. That required not only the continued advocacy of Conan Doyle, the lawyer and criminologist William Roughead and the journalist William Park, but also of Ramsay MacDonald between his two spells as Prime Minister.

Conan Doyle thought the case would remain “in the classics of crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy.” He compared it to the Dreyfus Affair in France, where refusal to admit a mistake was compounded by further deceit and dishonesty. Fox’s account is compelling, lucid and indignant. It reminds one that the presumption of innocence is a legal principle, and that it is better that a guilty man goes free than an innocent one is convicted. Too often and too easily Establishments will, in self-protection or with a regard for their reputation, persist in an unjust course rather than admit to have made a mistake and been at fault.

Conan Doyle for the Defence, by Margalit Fox, Profile, 359pp, £16.99