On the case
Three tales of sleuthing and mystery, both fiction and nonfiction, for the summer season
The fictional private detective Sherlock Holmes excelled at solving crimes as brutal as they were baffling. His real-life creator, author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, went even further in the pursuit of justice, going to bat to exonerate Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish immigrant who came to be known as “the Scottish Dreyfus.” The crimes supposedly committed by Dreyfus and by Slater differed — the French-Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus had been framed for treason, while Slater was falsely accused of the 1908 murder of Marion Gilchrist, an elderly, well-to-do spinster in Glasgow, Scotland — but the parallels between the two cases are many.
First and foremost, both cases unfolded against a backdrop of rampant anti-Semitism and xenophobia that prejudiced the public — and the police and prosecutors, under pressure to indict a culprit — to automatically presume guilt, regardless of the weight of evidence that proved both men innocent of everything, except for being Jewish. But while it’s well known that French author Emile Zola rallied to the defense of Dreyfus, few are aware of Conan Doyle’s role in actively supporting Slater.
That omission has now been remedied by the accomplished nonfiction author and acclaimed New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox and her absorbing narrative, “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.”
From the get-go, Fox demonstrates her eye for the telling detail and her innate sense of pacing and suspense. She begins with the 1925 release from Scotland’s most infamous prison of a convict who has concealed, beneath his dentures, a hand-written note by Slater asking him to contact Conan Doyle on his behalf. By then Slater had already served 16 years of his life sentence, and repeated appeals by Conan Doyle, among others, to overturn his wrongful conviction had proven futile. But the smuggled note reawakened Conan Doyle’s interest, and his influence this time proved crucial in uncovering the myriad ways in which the police had systematically tampered with witness testimony and had mishandled, misinterpreted, and withheld evidence. Although his name was never cleared by an official pardon, Slater was released from prison in 1927.
In addition to taking readers step-by-step through Conan Doyle’s analysis of the Slater case files, Fox demonstrates how Conan Doyle (and Sherlock Holmes) helped transform criminal investigation into a science based on factual evidence and objective reasoning. She vividly depicts the horrid physical prison conditions Slater endured, as well as the psychological consequences of wrongful imprisonment. In some of the book’s most powerful sections, Fox quotes Slater’s correspondence with family members in Breslau, Germany, to portray a man whose plight has led him to the brink of madness and suicide. At a time when bias can and does still land innocents in jail, the relevance of the Slater case remains all too clear.
Sleuthing is also at the center of “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” by Michael David Lukas. This taut historical novel opens as a fairy tale might, carrying readers back to “a long, long time ago … when Cairo was still two cities and the Jews but a tribe among them.” That would be the year 1040, C.E., shortly after the opening of the recently rebuilt Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, a once flourishing city in its own right that is known today as “Old Cairo.”
That era serves as the setting for the first of three different interwoven narratives, each taking place in a different century, each one centered around the synagogue and the contents of its attic storeroom, called the geniza, which served as the community’s repository for discarded papers, documents, correspondence, and religious books. According to tradition, such papers could not be thrown away because they were written in Hebrew, which was considered a holy language, or because they mentioned the name of God.
We meet the first watchman of the synagogue and its geniza in the book’s opening pages when, soon after a suspicious fire damages part of the synagogue, the Jewish community hires the orphaned Muslim, Ali ibn al-Marwani, to safeguard it. Such is his loyalty to the Fustat community that the position becomes the family trade, handed down from generation to generation for the next thousand years.
The tradition is not broken until the year 2000, when the last synagogue watchman of the book’s title dies, leaving behind his 20-something son Joseph, a Berkeley graduate student who at first displays little interest in his father’s legacy. But that ending is also the start of the book’s second narrative thread: We learn that Joseph’s mother is an Egyptian-born Jew whose family was, like most of Egypt’s Jews, forced to leave the country in the mid-1950s during the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
With his dual heritage, as Jew and Muslim, Joseph symbolizes the possibility for peace and understanding on a larger scale. In a similar vein, when Joseph visits Cairo to track down the origins of a gift left for him by his father — an ancient document written in different languages in different epochs — his trip represents the intertwined legacies of all three Abrahamic religions.
It is left to the third strand of the story, set in 1897, to unlock the mystery of the document. Here Lukas traces the discovery by the scholar Solomon Schechter and the twin British antiquarian sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson of the extraordinary contents of the geniza: approximately 200,000 document fragments, some dating as far back as the ninth century, written variously in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Syriac. This treasure trove included long-lost early versions of Hebrew texts, correspondence from rabbinic luminaries such as Maimonides, and all manner of manuscripts making up the stuff of the community’s daily life, from prayer books to marriage contracts to business contracts and legal deeds. This cache — different parts of which are now housed in university libraries in Britain as well as New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary — provides an unparalleled record of the life of the Jewish community over the course of centuries, and also records the many inter-connections between Jewish and non-Jewish communities throughout the medieval world.
Lukas provides an enticing introduction to the extraordinary story of the Cairo geniza. Those who wish to learn more would do well to turn to the superb nonfiction account, “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.
Mystery and obsession combine to make Chilean author Carla Guelfenbein’s novel “In the Distance with You,” translated from the Spanish by John Cullen, an atmospheric page-turner. In the same way that movies are often said to be inspired by true events, Guelfenbein has loosely modeled the enigmatic cult author at the center of her novel, an 80-year-old recluse named Vera Sigall, after the elusive Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose work has attracted a devoted international following since her death in 1977, just shy of her 57th birthday.
Lispector and Sigall share a number of biographical details, starting with their origins as Russian/Ukrainian-born Jews whose shtetls were destroyed by pogroms and who, with their families, subsequently fled to South America. Despite impoverished childhoods, they managed to become glamorous journalists, married “up” in society, and in time also became known for their writings, which employed a grammatically complex style that baffled some and enchanted others. In a post-modern twist, Gulfenbein also names Benjamin Moser, the real-life biographer of Lispector, as the chronicler of the life of the fictional Sigall.
As the novel opens, Sigall has been discovered unconscious at her home, apparently having fallen down the stairs. Was it the result of an accident or foul play? While the police detective assigned to the case investigates, and Sigall herself remains comatose in a hospital bed, three narrators, each one connected to her in a different way, reflect on the mysteries of her life trajectory. Her unhappily married next-door neighbor Daniel, who instead of working on his architectural projects keeps tabs on her from his window, seeks insight into the nature of her creativity, and clues to reawakening his own. Emilia, a painfully shy graduate student who has traveled from France to write about Sigall, becomes consumed with the various metaphorical and linguistic patterns she discovers in the work. The distinguished poet Horacio, who seems to have shared a complex relationship, both personal and professional, with Sigall, ponders the price and the responsibility of literary fame.
Guelfenbein adeptly captures the meditative mood of each of her narrators, and successfully conjures Sigall’s linguistic delight in patterning words into poems. One only wishes the author had edited some of the more long-winded passages and made the wandering plot more concise.