I will readily admit that while I adore all things Sherlock Holmes, I am more in love with the character and the idea of Sherlock than I am the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Still, when I saw Conan Doyle for the Defense being highlighted during this year’s NonFiction November I was so excited. A nonfiction story of how the creator of the world’s most famous detective interceded on behalf of wrongly convicted individuals….perfect.
Unfortunately, this book has me feeling as though I just finished a Sherlock story. I feel as though I am in love with the idea of the book and certainly the hundreds of details I learned but it was, like Conan Doyle’s writing, a little boring to actually read. While this is a positive review (as all are on SilverButtonBooks) this little note needed to be said from the beginning.
One of the struggles the book tries to overcome is the sheer amount of knowledge that you must have in order to comprehend how important Conan Doyle’s intervention was at the time. Author Margarit Fox tries to explain the historic problems with the criminal justice system in Scotland. She also highlights the erroneous and unethical police work of the time. And, she includes the background, training, and ethical rules of the great Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle. Furthermore, Ms. Fox weaves into the book societal issues including, immigration, selectively prevailing Victorian attitudes, and changing views towards Jewish people. Finally, there are a great number of letters written back and forth between the prisoner and his family that are important to read but come abruptly into and out of the narrative. The book could have been broken down into several separate books or edited in a way that more gracefully highlights the pertinent facts but it did not. Still, with all of this, I challenge you to read this book and not be blown away by the experiences of all involved.
Like most stories of wrongly convicted men, this book left me indignant as to the treatment of Oscar Slater, a German Jewish immigrant who is imprisoned for nearly twenty years for a murder he did not commit. I was also surprised by the lack of appeals courts in Scotland during that time, a fact I had never really given much thought. And, of course, the unethical police work was simply shocking. From the very first clue, Oscar should have been taken off the list of suspects. Add to the the prevailing ideals of the day and the prejudices against both immigrants and Jewish people and it is no wonder that Oscar was arrested. How could an immigrant living with a woman of dubious morals who makes money as a card shark expect to receive a fair and impartial trial?
And into all of this mess wades Arthur Conan Doyle. Newly married to his second wife, this was not Conan Doyle’s first foray into righting the wrongs of the criminal justice system but it would be his longest and his most important. His steadfast morals combined with his eye for detail honed through years living inside of Sherlock’s head brought him at the right time to correct this enormous wrong. Still, it wasn’t quick work and Conan Doyle fought, on and off, for years for justice for Oscar.
This book has left me wanting to know so much more about Arthur Conan Doyle and the man on which he based Sherlock, Dr. Bell. Conan Doyle for the Defense also gave me so much new information about a time period I thought I understood. Some times, the best thing a nonfiction book can do is feed your curiosity. This book does that and more even though it was certainly not the easiest book to read.
Tell me, please!
Have you ever loved a character or information from a book even though you didn’t completely enjoy reading the book?