Margalit Fox vividly remembers the day she first read about a case she could hardly believe: Arthur Conan Doyle personally investigated and helped commute the sentence of Oscar Slater, a wrongfully imprisoned German immigrant in Glasgow, Scotland.
Fox was riding the A train on her way to work. “I almost dropped the book in the middle of the train,” she recalls. “I thought, my God, the creator of Sherlock Holmes turned real-life detective and used those same methods to overturn a wrongful conviction. Why on earth isn’t this story better known?”
That was about thirty years ago. Fast forward to the present, and Fox, now a New York Times journalist, has brought the story to light in the endlessly riveting Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. The case was certainly a sensation in its time, and Fox begins her account in storybook fashion: “In Glasgow at the turn of the twentieth century, there lived an old lady whom few people liked.”
“She didn’t sound like a particularly nice woman,” Fox notes, speaking by phone from her office at the Times. “That said, she certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her.”
Eighty-two-year-old Marion Gilchrist was bludgeoned to death in her apartment on December 21, 1908, her face and skull smashed, most likely with a wooden chair. Gilchrist owned an expensive jewelry collection, but nothing was stolen except a diamond brooch. Residents in the apartment below heard strange noises, and one neighbor—along with Gilchrist’s maid who was returning from an errand—arrived at her doorstep just in time to see a mysterious, well-dressed man stroll out.
Slater was a Jewish immigrant from Germany, a gambler and an easy scapegoat for this high-profile crime. He was accused and wrongfully convicted, although police had determined his innocence within a week.
“It’s terrifying,” Fox says. “What just ripped my guts out is he had literally made arrangements for his own burial, and his sentence was commuted to a life at hard labor 48 hours before he knew he was going to be hanged. You’re not supposed to know the date of your own death. That just sends chills down my spine.”
Death is something that Fox deals with every day, having written obituaries for the Times since 2004 (she’s featured in Obit, a wonderful documentary film about the department). The work, it turns out, has been perfect training.
Speaking in the crisply enunciated, fact-filled sentences one might expect from a seasoned journalist, Fox elaborates: “Writing obits is really extraordinary training for writing narrative journalism in general, and particularly narrative journalism in which the lens of an individual life is used to examine larger social issues. And in this case, the social issues are all about the things that we see in the papers every day today: racism, xenophobia, class tension.”
As a writer who chooses each word with a surgeon’s precision, Fox could not be more clear-eyed about the importance of this story. “History is very, very much appearing to repeat itself,” she says, “so this 1908 murder in Glasgow has never been more relevant to America in 2018.”
Conan Doyle believed in Slater’s innocence from the start and became publicly involved with trying to free him in 1912. He was obsessed with the case; he scoured court documents and spotted myriad inconsistencies and fabrications by police and prosecutors. Despite Conan Doyle’s efforts, Slater continued to languish in prison for more than a decade, when a freed prisoner managed to carry a secret message—wadded into a tiny pellet hidden beneath his dentures—from Slater to Conan Doyle. The short message urged Conan Doyle to renew his efforts, and by 1927, Slater was freed, having spent more than 18 years in prison. Fox says, “Conan Doyle used almost to the letter the methodology of his most famous literary creation—and it worked.”
“History is very, very much appearing to repeat itself, so this 1908 murder in Glasgow has never been more relevant to America in 2018.”
The story has been largely untold, however, requiring herculean research on Fox’s part. She began in Scotland in 2014, requesting documents at various archives. She visited Peterhead Convict Prison in Aberdeenshire (which is now a museum), about which she notes: “It is freezing cold and wet and raining. I took a picture of the state of my umbrella after waiting for a bus for 20 minutes, and the umbrella had been completely decapitated and had its spine snapped. I can’t imagine 18-and-a-half years [there].”
Back at home, bulging files soon began arriving at Fox’s doorstep, “easily three or four thousand pages of documents,” including trial transcripts, police records, interview notes and letters to and from Slater’s family. It took Fox about 18 months to go through everything.
“I used the same skills we use doing daily obits on deadline,” she says. “The research is exactly the same. . . . [You’re] trying to distill all of these diverse, often atomized, often seemingly unrelated documents into one cogent narrative that one hopes gives the sense of a life.” In the meantime, she was riding back and forth to work and reading Sherlock Holmes stories during her daily commute. “Basically I was really tired and had no social life,” she admits.
The publication of Conan Doyle for the Defense marks a bittersweet time for Fox, who will soon retire to write books full time. She already has her next idea: a prisoner of war’s escape story.
“I know it has to be narrative nonfiction,” Fox confesses, “because I, unfortunately, was not born with a fiction gene. I would love to be able to just make stuff up and be relieved of the onus of having fealty to historical facts—but no such luck for me.”
Author photo by Ivan Farkas.