When Mystery Authors Become Real-Life Detectives: Part 4

Books Features

In this four-part series, Paste reviews the detection skills of authors who attempted to solve real-life mysteries, and the verdicts are largely grim. We may never know who committed some infamous crimes, but these writers are often guilty of whipping up theories that make real life read like bad fiction.

We conclude our series with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who investigated several real-life mysteries and alleged supernatural incidents. When it came to solving crimes, Doyle lived up to his reputation as the inventor of fiction’s greatest armchair detective. Yet he was also a sucker for every psychic or spiritualist who came knocking.

The Case of the Innocent Men and the Guilty Girls
“Detective”: Arthur Conan Doyle
Resume: Doctor, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
Cases: Pony-slashing, murder and fairies.
Verdict: A Dr. Watson to defense attorneys, an Inspector Lestrade to hoaxers.

The mystery writers in the first three installments of this series merely wrote about the suspects they wanted to convict, so give Doyle some props for actually gaining pardons for wrongly convicted men.

In the pardon campaigns, Doyle used his fame and his presumed Holmesian detective skills as political leverage. But he was really more of a Dr. Watson, packaging the defense’s arguments in well-written form for newspapers.

George Edalji was convicted of slashing a pony in 1903, part of a bizarre series of nighttime livestock mutilations in an English village. Edalji faced an array of forensic evidence, from possible pony hairs on his clothes to distinctive bootprints at the crime scene, that would have done Holmes proud. All the more impressive, then, for Doyle to echo the defense’s responses to it all.

Doyle’s original contribution was a striking anecdote that cast himself in the quick-witted observer role of Holmes. Upon first meeting Edalji, he wrote, he found the convict reading a newspaper. Edalji held the paper at an odd angle close to his face, prompting Doyle to realize Edalji had terrible eyesight and thus could not be guilty of stalking animals in the dark. True or not, this observation gave the case the irresistible force and flavor of 221B Baker Street, and Edalji was pardoned in 1907.

Doyle had a similar hand in the case of Oscar Slater, a German immigrant convicted of the 1908 murder of a rich, elderly woman in her Glasgow home. In 1912, Doyle waded into the debate with his short book The Case of Oscar Slater, a devastating, Holmesian dissection of the prosecution suggesting a convincing, alternative theory. Masterfully argued and beautifully written, it remains a piece defense lawyers could learn from today.

Noting that police originally fingered Slater based on a false lead, Doyle questioned which scenario was more likely: Slater happened to be the guilty man in an “unheard-of million-to-one coincidence,” or the police “refused to admit that they were wrong” in a high-pressure case and trusted that “vague identifications of a queer-looking foreigner” would score a conviction.

Like Holmes, Doyle reviewed the evidence for clues and deduced various facts about the killer, concluding the true culprit likely was a friend-of-a-friend of the maid.

Slater later got his sentence commuted after faulty eyewitness testimonies were criticized, and he was pardoned in 1927.

Sharp as Doyle was in criminal matters, his brain wilted in the heat of any supernatural tall tale. He ruined his friendship with Harry Houdini, the famous magician and exposer of fraudulent psychics, by claiming Houdini himself used supernatural powers to perform his tricks.

Perhaps inevitably, Doyle met his own Moriarty in the form of the two girls behind the Cottingley Fairies photos hoax of 1917-20.

The girls took clever photos of winged “fairies,” which were traced out of a book. Despite the obvious fabrication of the fairies, some adults believed the photos revealed actual supernatural creatures, and the girls played along. Doyle popularized the photos and published a book, The Coming of the Fairies, to counter skeptics in 1922.

Doyle attempted to remain scientific about the fairy mystery and allowed that more proof was needed to be absolutely certain. He sought expert photo examinations and interviewed the girls. But he was ultimately taken in, his critical faculties swept away by his romantic wishes for an antidote to, what he considered, dull modern life.

The women finally confessed it was a hoax in the 1980s, 60 years after Doyle’s epic fail of a real-life mystery investigation.

Part 1 features Patricia Cornwell’s attempt to identify Jack the Ripper. Edgar Allan Poe rants about a murder suspect in Part 2, and P.D. James “solves” a murder with a hunch in Part 3.

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