A trio of authors tackle a tricky genre: true crime, in which history has already written the ending.
For a writer, the true-crime genre is a tricky business. Recreating the evil deed, unearthing the evidence and shaping the story into a compelling narrative may sound like easy pickings for an accomplished author, but facts can be messier than fiction. Consider the complications: competing versions of what really happened, victims who may be hard to empathize with, and the distinct possibility of an untidy outcome. If you’re writing a mystery, you get to choose the ending. Not so with true crime; it’s real life — all too real.
Until recently author Margalit Fox (“The Riddle of the Labyrinth”) was an obituary writer for The New York Times, excellent training for the clarity, precision, and devotion to historical context she showcases in her books. It’s a suitable match for her new release, “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” (Random House, $27). It’s the true story of an unjust conviction that consigned an innocent man to life in one of Scotland’s worst prisons, and of the campaign to free him, led by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The murder of Marion Gilchrist in Glasgow in December 1908 shocked that Scottish city; the churchgoing 82-year-old woman was brutally and fatally beaten in her own home in a tasteful neighborhood. A crescent-shaped brooch similar to one taken from Gilchrist’s apartment was found in the possession of Oscar Slater, an immigrant Jewish gambler who favored prostitutes as traveling companions. Though the brooch was not an exact match, the police put together the flimsiest of cases against Slater. He was convicted and sent to Peterhead, a bleak stone fortress known as “Scotland’s gulag.”
And there he might have rotted, except that Slater’s lawyer pleaded with Conan Doyle to look into it. The writer published a pamphlet taking apart the police’s case in 1912, but Slater stayed in prison. Then in 1927, at the end of his endurance, Slater smuggled a note to Conan Doyle that set the author on the case again.
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Conan Doyle fans may know the case of George Edalji, son of a Bombay-born vicar and an Englishwoman, a lawyer whose genteel upbringing could not protect him from a racist smear campaign. He was accused of a series of bizarre crimes, convicted, then pardoned in 1907 after Conan Doyle led a campaign to free him.
Fox expertly frames the case of Oscar Slater as another example of scapegoating. Anti-immigrant sentiment was rife during his lifetime — driven from Europe by pogroms and privation, Eastern European Jews had fled to England in large numbers, and “anti-Jewish bigotry permeated nearly every aspect of British life,” Fox writes.
If you are a Holmes devotee, you will love watching his creator take apart a flimsy criminal case through reason and meticulous examination of the evidence. You will be appalled at the Glasgow police’s efforts to suppress information that would have exonerated Slater. It’s sad to report that Slater and Conan Doyle eventually fell out, but Slater’s case and its outcome “helped spur the establishment of England’s first criminal appeals court,” Fox writes.
Portland writer Paul Collins is a true-crime pro, author of several books on historic criminal cases (“The Murder of the Century”). His new book “Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard” (W.W. Norton, $26.95, at booksellers July 17) is a story about a brutal, blood-soaked crime in an unusual setting — the storied classrooms of Harvard, circa 1849.
The victim was Dr. George Parkman, Harvard Medical School graduate, an aloof, greedy man who quit his medical practice to become one of Boston’s most powerful landlords. After Parkman paid a visit to Harvard chemistry professor John White Webster on a chilly November day, he vanished. In the days that followed no one could find him, alive or dead, despite an extensive and thorough search of the medical school, Cambridge, Boston and beyond.
Collins recreates the search for Parkman’s body, the eventual discovery of his remains, the sensational trial and its aftermath. I won’t reveal key particulars, but I will say that the interested reader will learn a lot about how to dispose of a body in 1849 (in the 19th century, dissection was the main path to teaching the anatomy of the human body). Collins has a fine eye for the telling historical detail — “A typical Harvard professor’s net worth was an impressive $75,000, and they had not come by that money through teaching,” he writes — even then, a seat at Harvard’s academic table could yield rich rewards. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Dickens make cameo appearances. This saga of a sensational crime, complete with a newspaper war fueled by the public’s appetite for gory details, will convince you (if you needed convincing) that humans have an unquenchable interest in stories of murder, especially as it plays out among the elite.
No one dies in “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century” by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Viking, $27), but it gets the prize for engendering in this reader a profound sense of disgust with its protagonist and villain.
Edwin Rist was a home-schooled musical prodigy, an American flutist who by age 20 was enrolled in Britain’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music. He was also an obsessional flytier — his bible was a book by a long-ago Victorian devotee of the sport, a guide to creating elaborate and beautiful salmon fishing lures with the feathers of rare and exotic birds.
This American kid, whose parents had given him every advantage, repaid his host country’s hospitality when in 2009, he broke into the Tring Natural History Museum near London, ransacked storage drawers and made off with 299 preserved skins of some of the rarest birds on the globe, including several birds of paradise collected by British natural-history pioneer Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century. Rist hoped to make tens of thousands of dollars by fencing their fantastically colored plumage to his fellow fly-tying devotees.
Author Johnson, a former USAID worker in Iraq, headed a campaign to resettle Iraqis marked for death for helping the American military, a quest he recounted in his previous book “To Be a Friend is Fatal.” He’s a guy who doesn’t give up, and he doggedly pursues the story both of Rist and the hermetic world of fly-tying.
The self-absorption of Rist and those who bought feathers from him is mind-boggling. They didn’t care that they broke a chain of research and evidence into a field of immense importance, the study of species teetering on the edge of extinction because of development and climate change.
Johnson writes that in his pursuit of Rist’s story, he discovered “two currents of humanity” in the saga of the stolen birds. In one — dedicated natural scientists who for more than 100 years collected, preserved and studied the birds, even shielding the skins from bombing during World War II. In the other: “Edwin and the feather underground, and the centuries of men and women who looted the skies and forests for wealth and status, driven by greed and the desire to possess what others didn’t,” he writes. “The Feather Thief” is an object lesson in humanity’s capacity for sheer, blind selfishness.