MIS­CEL­LA­NEOUS

The Oldie - - ASK VIRGINIA -

CO­NAN DOYLE FOR THE DE­FENCE A SEN­SA­TIONAL MUR­DER, THE QUEST FOR JUS­TICE AND THE WORLD’S GREAT­EST DE­TEC­TIVE WRITER MARGALIT FOX Pro­file, 344pp, £16.99, Oldie price £12.08 inc p&p

When Os­car Slater, Ger­man-born and Jewish, was con­victed of the vi­o­lent mur­der of 83-year-old Mar­ion Gilchrist in Glas­gow in 1908, the case sparked a na­tion­wide cam­paign to prove that Slater had been stitched up by a cor­rupt po­lice force. Among those who ad­vo­cated his in­no­cence was Arthur Co­nan Doyle, who wrote an 80-page plea for a full par­don, tak­ing apart the prose­cu­tion ev­i­dence with Holme­sian logic. As Kathryn Hughes put it in the Guardian: ‘The Slater case is of­ten in­voked as an ex­am­ple of how easy it was for the po­lice to fit some­one up in an age be­fore DNA, when crime scene pro­to­col mostly con­sisted of slap­ping hand­cuffs on the near­est wrong ’un.’

New York Times jour­nal­ist Margalit Fox has re­vis­ited the case, in par­tic­u­lar to demon­strate that the racial­i­sa­tion of crime is noth­ing new. ‘Bad sci­ence and eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity,’ wrote Hughes, ‘have long been re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing “out groups” on whom we dump our worst ter­rors.’

In the Sun­day Times, James Mac­connachie en­joyed a ‘first class book: pacy, in­sight­ful and lurid’ which ‘bulges with stolen jew­els, ser­vant wit­nesses, gas-lit halls and ob­tuse po­lice­men’. Although the story has been of­ten told be­fore, most re­view­ers thought it well worth re­vis­it­ing. Slater was even­tu­ally par­doned – af­ter 19 years in prison – due to de­tailed in­ves­ti­ga­tions that, as Paula Byrne wrote in the Times ‘dis­man­tled the case, point by point, mis­take by mis­take’.

THE WORLD IN THIRTYEIGHT CHAP­TERS OR DR JOHN­SON’S GUIDE TO LIFE HENRY HITCH­INGS Macmil­lan, 353pp, £16.99, Oldie price £12.97 inc p&p

Hitch­ings, the au­thor of an amaz­ingly en­joy­able book about the mak­ing of Dr John­son’s Dic­tio­nary, has ‘re­turned to the man he de­scribes as “a heroic thinker” to dis­cuss the full range of his achieve­ments’, Craig Brown wrote in the Mail on Sun­day. ‘More than 300 years since his birth, John­son’s words still shoot off the page like fire­works. They are full of wis­dom, too, and Hitch­ings is right to cel­e­brate them as a “guide to life”.’

Frances Wil­son in the Spec­ta­tor be­moaned the fact that book­shelves groan with self-help books, although this is an ex­cep­tion, be­cause ‘we will find here a cel­e­bra­tion and elu­ci­da­tion of Dr John­son by a scholar who is John­so­nian to his bone mar­row’. John­son, she con­tin­ued, has much to teach us, ‘even if sim­ply to demon­strate how not to act or think’.

Each of Hitch­ings’s 38 chap­ters fo­cuses on an event in John­son’s life, or on one of his ru­mi­na­tions, and is ‘a leisurely, free-wheel­ing es­say con­form­ing to John­son’s def­i­ni­tion of the es­say form as “a loose sally of the mind”,’ added Wil­son.

‘Hitch­ings is in­ter­ested in the John­son who said “we see a lit­tle, and form an opin­ion; we see more, and change it”, and ex­plains how John­son did this all the time,’ Orlando Bird ob­served in the Sun­day Tele­graph. ‘I’d ex­pected to groan my way through the sec­tions on what he might have thought about Face­book, or fake news, but Hitch­ings gen­er­ally gets away with it,’ Bird con­tin­ued. ‘And John­son’s words on “those de­sires which arise from the com­par­i­son of our con­di­tion with that of oth­ers” are in­deed worth re­mem­ber­ing next time you scroll through your In­sta­gram feed.’

Although ‘Hitch­ings pe­ri­od­i­cally goes off on one about mod­ern life, like a ham­mily can­tan­ker­ous colum­nist’, ac­cord­ing to Bird, ‘at his best, Hitch­ings is lu­cid and em­phatic, schol­arly but lively. A model John­so­nian, in fact.’

NOTES ON A NER­VOUS PLANET MATT HAIG Canon­gate, 310pp, £12.99, Oldie price £9.95 inc p&p

Rea­sons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig’s 2015 book about his de­pres­sion, was a best­seller. His lat­est is a vade

mecum for moder­nity de­scribed by Katy Guest in the Ob­server: ‘Short chap­ters, con­cisely writ­ten, with lots of num­bered lists – just right for an au­di­ence whose at­ten­tion, Haig ar­gues, is be­ing stretched painfully thin by 24-hour rolling news, smart­phones, work and so­cial me­dia.’ As Ben East in the Guardian put it: ‘The short an­swer ly­ing within this like­able and thought-pro­vok­ing book is ef­fec­tively: turn off the in­ter­net.’

In the Sun­day Times, Ian Critch­ley found sound ad­vice: ‘Haig’s litany of mod­ern-day evils in­cludes so­cial me­dia, the news, long work­ing hours and email. He ad­vo­cates so­lu­tions such as get­ting enough sleep, switch­ing off phones and com­put­ers and read­ing books. Much of this seems ob­vi­ous, yet part of Haig’s point is that peo­ple suf­fer­ing from men­tal-health prob­lems lack per­spec­tive on what is and isn’t good for them.’ Bel Mooney in the Daily

Mail didn’t buy Haig’s ‘en­dear­ing scat­ti­ness’, but she came round to him: ‘Hav­ing cruised through a quar­ter of the book feel­ing faint ir­ri­ta­tion at some of the wide-eyed sim­plic­ity, I reached the last page ad­mir­ing the au­thor’s in­ven­tive en­ergy and in­sight.’ Yet Katie Law in the Evening Stan­dard queried Haig’s own re­la­tion­ship with so­cial me­dia: ‘He is an avid tweeter, with 216,000 fol­low­ers, and a ran­dom few hours on Twit­ter shows him tweet­ing and re-tweet­ing ev­ery few min­utes.’

‘John­son has much to teach us, even if sim­ply to demon­strate how not to act or think’

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