Conan Doyle for the DefenceIn 1908, an 82-year-old spinster, Marion Gilchrist, was found bludgeoned to death in her own Glasgow home. The police soon had who they believed was the culprit – a German Jew called Oscar Slater. Despite having an alibi, Slater was convicted and sentenced to death before having his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in Peterhead Prison. Seventeen years later, William Gordon, a fellow inmate, was released, taking with him a smuggled message from Slater to someone who he thought could help him to clear his name – the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the story of how the Sherlock Holmes writer helped to free the man who had become the subject of a huge miscarriage of justice.

In recent years, mainly thanks to the BBC Sherlock series, there has been a renewed interest in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The TV adaptation of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes also introduced the public to how, although Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character, Conan Doyle was certainly not and, he too, dabbled in detection.

Conan Doyle for the Defence has police corruption, ineptitude and racial prejudice at its core. Shortly after the elderly woman’s murder, those responsible for finding the culprit had their sights firmly set on Oscar Slater. Despite him having an alibi, having no knowledge of the dead woman and there being no evidence whatsoever, Slater was arrested, tried for her murder and subsequently sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment and he would spend the following decades incarcerated in one of the toughest prisons in Scotland. Conan Doyle would spend many years trying to help to free him and even published The Case of Oscar Slater in 1912.

It is clear that the author has done much research into the case and, as a result, has provided a comprehensive overview of the trial, incarceration and release of Slater. The transcriptions of correspondence between himself and his family were particularly moving and really brought home how his family, themselves suffering due to the First World War, never gave up hope that, one day, justice would finally prevail.

I found Conan Doyle for the Defence a fascinating read, leaving me with a sense of despair that the justice system allowed this to happen. Highly recommended to those who enjoy reading true crime and any Sherlock Holmes fans.

With thanks to Net Galley and Serpent’s Tail / Profile Books for my ARC.

Purchase the book here: Conan Doyle for the Defence