A tale of two detectives.
In this dry foray into the ever fascinating life of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), celebrity biographer Sandford (Union Jack: JFK’s Special Relationship with Great Britain, 2017, etc.) seeks to “show the ways in which Doyle himself consistently applied both the intellect and innate sense of justice (if not always the mercurial powers of observation) of his immortal creation.” It may come as something of a surprise to Sherlock Holmes’ legions of fans that his creator was often personally involved in real-life criminal cases. Doyle, a successful author who also maintained a medical practice, “consistently came to the defense of the persecuted or oppressed”—and “if the aggrieved party happened to be a lady, so much the better.” Sandford examines a number of cases Doyle took a personal interest in, including the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926 and his defense of the later-debunked photograph of the Cottingley fairies, which Sandford calls Doyle’s “most notorious literary act,” but he largely focuses on two scandalous crimes: the 1906 case of the young Anglo-Indian lawyer George Edalji—the subject of Julian Barnes’ outstanding novel, Arthur & George—who was accused of writing a series of anonymous, inflammatory letters to his father, the Rev. Edalji, as well as mutilating cattle. He was found guilty and imprisoned. Sandford meticulously describes Doyle’s involvement in the case. He met with George and became an ardent supporter of his innocence in the pursuit of justice. Doyle insisted that his persecution “owed more to racial prejudice and to rank blundering on the part of the authorities.” Doyle also became an active participant in the case of Oscar Slater, who supposedly robbed and murdered an elderly Glasgow woman. Doyle “spoke persuasively about the shortcomings and contradictions of Slater’s prosecution.” Sandford’s discussion of Doyle, Harry Houdini, and spiritualism is a rehash of his earlier book, Masters of Mystery (2011).
Workmanlike but rather prosaic.