Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a very interesting man. Sometime ago, I wrote about his strange belief in fairies. He also sailed on a Greenland whaler, the Hope of Peterhead -- probably not so unusual, as it was common for new graduates from the Edinburgh medical school to pay off their debts and amass some savings that way. However, Doyle fell overboard so unusually often that his shipmates called him "the Great Northern Diver."
Now we find that he learned a system of detection from one of his mentors, one that not only earned him classic status as a mystery writer, but inspired him to solve a crime of his own.
Watching the detectives
When Arthur Conan Doyle cried “J’Accuse…!”
In the case of the “Scottish Dreyfus”, the novelist deployed the acuity of his fictional detective
Jul 7th 2018
Conan Doyle for the Defence. By Margalit Fox. Random House; 352 pages; $27. Profile; £16.99.
TOWARDS the end of the 19th century a patient appeared before a doctor and his students in a Scottish hospital. The doctor, Joseph Bell, eyes bright above a hawk nose, addressed him. “You came from Liberton,” he said. “You drive two horses, one grey, one bay; you are probably employed by a brewery.” To the awe of his students, the sharp-eyed doctor was right on all counts.
The sharp-eyed reader will have guessed the identity of one of his acolytes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (pictured left). It is well known that Conan Doyle borrowed Bell’s deductive genius (and his profile) for his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Less well known is that Conan Doyle also used Bell’s methods to solve real-life crimes. One such crime—a murder—is the subject of Margalit Fox’s new book, “Conan Doyle for the Defence”.
Conan Doyle had involved himself in miscarriages of justice before, but this one would eclipse them all. It was so corrupt that it “savoured rather of Russian than of Scottish jurisprudence”; so anti-Semitic that its wrongly accused victim became known as a “Scottish Dreyfus”; so embarrassing to national pride that British writers resorted to not one but two international analogies to convey their disgust.
The inquiry should have been simple. On December 21st 1908 Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy spinster, was bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. Shortly afterwards the Scottish police “solved” the case when they arrested Oscar Slater (pictured right), a local German Jew. Slater was found guilty and sentenced to hard labour in His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead.
There he might have remained, had his plight not been brought to Conan Doyle’s attention, via a method itself redolent of Victorian melodrama. A pleading note was carried out of Peterhead, hidden in the dentures of a discharged prisoner. Conan Doyle, a Victorian dynamo with a walrus moustache and a passion for cricket and fair play, felt duty-bound to investigate. He set to work, trawling through page after page of evidence. He was horrified by what he found.
It is a capital offence, Holmes declared to Watson, to theorise in advance of the facts. Like Bell, Holmes drew conclusions from evidence as minute as bloodstains, mud on shoes and the precise sort of ash found at a crime scene—scientific techniques that, largely thanks to Holmes himself, would eventually become standard practice in police departments across the world. As Conan Doyle examined the Slater affair, he realised the Scottish police had theorised not merely in advance of the facts but in advance of the crime.
The bobbies in Glasgow had been watching Slater for months. He was no angel but, Ms Fox argues, he had aroused suspicions mostly because he was foreign. Not merely foreign, but German, Jewish, a gambler and (perhaps most horrifying of all) debonair. The police were immediately on their guard.
The deepest stains identified in the Slater case by Conan Doyle were not of blood, but the darker tones of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. If this was a Scottish Dreyfus, then Conan Doyle was its Zola and he cried “J’Accuse…!” with all the might that his position allowed. On November 14th 1927 Slater was released. The case was over. But the prejudices it exposed lived on.
Slater never returned to his family in Germany. That, says Ms Fox, was probably “just as well”. A few years later the Nazis took power and his two sisters were murdered at Theresienstadt and Treblinka.
This review first appeared in The Economist.
This review first appeared in The Economist.
With thanks to Brian Easton