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‘Conan Doyle for the Defense’ by Margalit Fox- Book Review

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 by Margalit Fox

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction, imitating art, and vice versa. Picture this. A man on losing streaks decides his last bet on life in the New World. But, instead, he finds on arrival himself surrounded by the grim-faced henchmen of law with the gray eyes scanning the debonair foreigner’s appearance, measuring his moral value, judging his life at face value. The compass of Goddess Fortuna’s Wheel indicates the downfall of Oscar Slater in the direction of HM Prison Peterhead in Scotland. But, even though fortune’s malice has thrown Slater overboard, it certainly has not deprived him of a lifeboat in the person of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The case of Oscar Slater is often dubbed a sensational Edwardian murder mystery characterized by a scandalous wrongful conviction by the stupendousness of a miscarriage of justice in the history of any subject related from social justice to penal system, from police investigation procedures to forensic science. It follows from a death of a wealthy elderly woman brutally assaulted in her Glasgow home in 1908 when the Victorian prejudice against poor immigrants and foreigners, especially Jewish extraction, was PC all over on the isles. Slater being a secular German Jew with dark eyes and hair contrasted with the fairness of angelic British blonde, the blue-eyed ideal figure was the poster man of a criminal among the police and became their convenient suspect without due diligence and beyond a reasonable doubt. The Scottish police applied none of the evidentiary truth to the Slater case. On the contrary, they projected all of prejudice and complacency into the person of Slater, who was a sort of likable roguish streetwise swinger whose attractive suaveness and sleekness are reminded of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Arthur Conan Doyle s helped Slater set free after twenty years of hard labor at the prison for the crime he had not committed. Suppose a true writer sees the world’s corruption at its heart and stands furious with people instead of grandstanding with rants and slurs. In that case, Conan Doyle stands along with Voltaire, George Orwell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the pantheon of the great writers who lived in the crowd of life.

Although Conan Doyle himself could not entirely be free from the conventional preconception about lower-class foreign immigrants and the jews, his integrity and charity exceeded the flaws. They changed the fate of the wrongly convicted man, which should be highly esteemed for universal recognition of all times. In the particular alchemy of literature as connecting the reader to the universal empathy, Doyle’s support of Slater’s innocence seems particularly conspicuous in the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The British general whose Toyota Jeep took up the already limited space could have held more Afghan evacuees in an airplane. Also, the former British Royal Marine chose to take 200 dogs and cats from the shelter with him over his Afghan workers and their families. But that’s not the end. The former Afghan employees of the British Embassy in Kabul are still clinging onto a thin ring of hope that their British ambassador boss for whom they had worked even during the Covid-19 pandemic scare would come to rescue. Would there be another Arthur Conan Doyle who would act on his principle of morality in the spirit of humanity who regard the lives of the oppressed Afghans as equally valuable as their own or similar kinds- that is, white and Christians?

My reference of Doyle’s involvement in the Slater case to current Afghanistan and refugee situations may seem a bit of a stretch with over-flowing maudlin sentimentalism. But I think Doyle’s determination to help Slater cause following the case of George Edalji, another miscarriage of justice based on racial discrimination, stems from his good natural good-heartedness aided by the brilliant mind searching for truth. It is a triumph of good over evil in the semblance of law and order. Unfortunately, I have a hard time finding a famous writer or poet who actively puts thinking into action, just as Doyle, Voltaire, Dickens, and Sand, whose brilliance of the minds resembled the magnificence of the Sun benefitting the life on earth. Where are such great writers now?



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Arthur Conan Doyle’s Search for Truth

Sometimes the truth is so strange and mad that you wish yourself dreaming when you awake. That is what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must have realized when he got a letter from one George Edalgi. The story read springing from Doyle’s Holmesian stories. Britain’s beloved author, partly curious and mostly indignant at the case’s stupendousness, felt responsible for searching the truth as the creator of his alter ego, Sherlock Holmes. So Doyle met the client Edalgi face to face in a hotel in January 1907. 



George Edalgi, the eldest son of Parsi-English vicar in the small mining village called Great Wyrley in England and former solicitor, served seven years of penitentiary servitude for the Great Wyrley killings of 1903 he claimed innocent. Edalgi’s case was an ipso facto example of miscarriage of justice on indubitably evident grounds of racially imbued personal vendettas against him and his family for who they were. The Edalgi family, despite Charlotte, the mother, and wife, being white, were regarded as heathen Indians encroaching upon the comfortable life of the English, or more precisely, the white privileges, which was the bastion of the eyes of the most villagers. Since the beginning of Reverend Edalgi’s vicarage, the family had been constant targets for racial slurs and hostility that perpetuated the peaceful family life. Even after George became a lawyer, the villagers continued to disrespect his presence, culminating in the notorious Great Wyrley killings of 1903 in which livestock, including horses and cows, were atrociously mutilated and left dead in horrible agony. As Wyrley was a closely-knit village of miners, the easy target for the blame goes for the Edalgis, especially for their eldest child George. He was a loner with distinctively ethnic physical features roving around alone in rumination on evenings. Any white person doing the same ritual would seem philosophical, sentimental, or poetic even, but it did not apply to George’s leisurely ceremony.


Upon consulting George, who must have thought Doyle as the only person on the British Isles to listen to his truth, Sherlock Holmes’s writer has the hunch that the client could not possibly have committed such an abdominal crime for the following reasons. The trappings are so fitting to a conspiracy that they stink:

  1. George is noticeably near-sighted when reading. The animals’ mutilations indicate only good eyesight can perform such surgically precise cuts.
  2. The ethnic backgrounds of George and the cultural environment of the village are circumstantial evidence that the case is racially motivated from the beginning. If not, then the real culprit used George’s vulnerability to camouflage his crime.
  3. The police framed George for the killings, knowing the real culprit because of racialism led by the local aristocratic police chief GA Anson.

Doyle’s real motivation for campaigning for George’s amnesty is curious speculation. Yet, it was the darkest night of the soul when Doyle answered the call for justice. He lost his wife Louise to tuberculosis while he was in love with Jean Leckie. Doyle took Louise’s death as a pang of his consciousness for seeing another woman at the time of her illness and regarded the letter from George as redemption of his soul to redirect the ship adrift after maelstrom. Whatever it might have been, Doyle was one of the most ardent campaigners for George’s pardoning to reinstate his legal career and restore his tainted honor. The fruition bears two tastes of the victory: the case led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907, and George was allowed to practice law again, which he did in London. However, the official government’s compensation for George’s time from the malice of injustice yielded nothing. Soon the case and the name George Edalgi became a thing of the past unless Arthur Conan Doyle chimes the bell with the forgotten.

This story I read from a British history magazine makes me think of what an author should be. An author sees the corrupt humanity and ills that cause it, stands furious with the honest minds, and speaks to the corrupt minds amid the chaotic order of nature that goes against truths. Charlotte Bronte posited that an Author has a faithful allegiance to truth and nature. Bestselling or obscure, an Author represents humanity who can see what others oversee or trivialize in preference to magnitude in power and splendor in fame. In that light, Conan Doyle deserves special homage for his search for truth. That is why he is still a great author in posterity.