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’