In 1893, the world was shocked to learn of the death of one of its heroes: Detective Sherlock Holmes had fallen off of a cliff while battling his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had tired of the character, and killed him off in the story “The Final Problem.” His death was met with such widespread backlash, however, that Doyle revived him. The public’s thirst to read about the brilliant British detective and his adventures has barely waned since.
In Fox’s new book, Doyle, not Holmes, is at the center of a long-forgotten criminal episode that reads like one of his mysteries. Fox, a former obituary writer for The New York Times (she composed over 1,400 obits), details the investigation of, and fallout from, the murder of a wealthy Glasgow woman in 1908. The lead suspect, Oscar Slater, a German Jewish gambler, ended up being wrongfully convicted, and imprisoned for close to twenty years, in a case dubbed “the Scottish Dreyfus affair” for the pivotal role Slater’s ethnicity played.
Fox explains that the crime took place when the field of criminology was in its nascent stages. The discovery of DNA was decades away, and even fingerprinting by the police was only slowly starting to be implemented. This is the context into which Doyle entered and began his involvement in the case, eventually successfully freeing Slater from prison.
In this captivating tale, Fox traces the development of Doyle’s career — including the fact that once his literary creation became so famous, requests flooded in for him to solve actual mysteries — through his efforts on behalf of Slater. In a particularly cinematic instance, a letter smuggled out of prison in a fake tooth seals Slater’s freedom. Fox’s writing, clearly honed by her years writing obituaries, effortlessly balances expertly-researched historical and archival data with the pathos and emotional nuance of any great drama. Like a classic Holmes yarn, Conan Doyle for the Defense is full of shady underworld characters, thievery, inept police officers, and a mystery whose historical setting belies its deep relevance to our own era.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.