Retrobrowsings: Who Killed Marion Gilchrist or the Curious Case of the Writer-Sleuth!

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Neelum revisits the December 1964 issue of Reader’s Digest. The condensed book supplement often formed the staple of collective family reading. Human interest stories, medical articles and daredevil adventure formed the balanced content of this widely popular monument of the magazine culture of those times. She reviews a story by Vincent Starret about Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who had cracked sensational cases, operating very much in the manner of his character. Here’s her erudite write-up, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Now the story I have curated for you this week is an absolute treasure, taken from the December 1964 issue of Reader’s Digest. Who did not have the Reader’s Digest delivered to the home by newsagent or postman? Keenly read, its regular items like Humour in Uniform, Quotable Quotes, It Pays to Increase Your Word Power, were institutions of literate civilisation. The condensed book supplement often formed the staple of collective family reading. Human interest stories, medical articles and daredevil adventure formed the balanced content of this widely popular monument of the magazine culture of those times. Under its banner appeared those glossy, high-class books of history, art and science that we ordered and that still line our shelves.

Readers Digest and Life-Time produced some really classy books for the common reader – when the common reader was by no means the common man! Be that as it may, the common reader knew all about Sherlock Holmes and his creator. This story is about Sherlock Holmes’s creator, against whom, for some time, there were murmured charges of plagiarism, but which today’s piece shall effectively dispel. Because Arthur Conan Doyle had, at least on two very visible occasions, cracked sensational cases, operating very much in the manner of his character. Over to Vincent Starret, author of the piece:

“Throughout a life of extraordinary service – as student, doctor, writer, spiritualist and prophet – Arthur Conan Doyle was always the private detective, the seeker after hidden truths, the hound of justice upon the trail of injustice and official apathy.

“To be sure, he told us time and again that the model for the immortal Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell of Edinburgh, his former instructor in medicine; but Bell was only the suggestion. Latent in Doyle himself was all that went into the making of Sherlock Holmes.

“In the circumstances and after the tales had become known, it was inevitable that the author of the Holmes saga would be called upon to enact the role of his fictional character, and not infrequently he accepted the implied challenge. Twice in his career he undertook cases requiring heavy calls upon his time and energies, because he believed that justice had not been done. The cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater were notorious in their day; and the thunder of Doyle’s denunciation resounded in both.

“In the first of these cases Sir Arthur secured the release from prison of a young man who had been given a seven-year sentence for the crime of horse-maiming. By showing, in a series of articles, that the police, ‘all pulling together and twisting things to their end’ had convicted Edalji on incredibly weak evidence, Sir Arthur brought about the appointment of a government committee which reviewed the case and gave Edalji his freedom.

“The Slater case, the fame of which was greater, had for its victim a Miss Marion Gilchrist, an elderly spinster living in Glasgow. She was murdered in her flat on December 21, 1908. Her servant, Helen Lambie, was out of the flat at the time, purchasing a newspaper, and it was during her ten minute absence that the murder was committed. Returning from her errand, the servant found a young man named Adams at the Gilchrist door, ringing the bell. He and his sisters had heard a noise above and a heavy fall, and he had been sent upstairs to ascertain what had happened. The servant opened the door with her key. Then, as they hesitated on the threshold, a man appeared from within, who approached them pleasantly, seemed about to speak, but instead passed them and rushed down the stairs. In the dining room the body of Miss Gilchrist was found, the head brutally beaten in and covered with a rug.

“In spite of the fact that Miss Gilchrist was the possessor of a valuable collection of jewellery, robbery would appear not to have been the motive for the murder, since all that was missing was a diamond brooch possibly worth fifty pounds. A box of papers had been broken open and the contents scattered. The description of the man seen by Adams and Helen Lambie was not particularly good; they were in some disagreement; and it was not at all the description of Oscar Slater, a German Jew, who was ultimately arrested and condemned for the crime.

“The apprehension of Slater came about because he had pawned a diamond brooch just before starting for America. He was arrested in New York and returned to Glasgow, where it was discovered beyond question of doubt that the brooch in question had been in his possession for years, and had never belonged to Miss Gilchrist.

“The public had lost its head, however, and the police were in a similar state. Slater was poor and without friends. His morals were shown not to have been of the highest, and Scottish virtue was shocked. The description of the man seen by Adams and Lambie was amended to fit Slater. He proved a clear alibi, but as his witnesses were his mistress and his servant girl, it was not allowed. No attempt was ever made to show a connection between Slater and anybody in the house occupied by Miss Gilchrist. He was a stranger in Glasgow. At the trial he was not too well defended and…was condemned to death. Two days before the day set for the execution the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was serving his term when Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in his plight.

“Sir Arthur’s brilliant pamphlet, The Case of Oscar Slater, has all the fascination of a tale of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur questioned whether the murderer was after the jewels at all.

“When he reached the bedroom, he did not at once seize the watch and rings which were lying openly exposed on the dressing table. His attention was given to a wooden box. Were the papers his object, and the final abstraction of one diamond brooch a mere blind?” He remarks on the fact that the murderer knew enough to go straight to a spare bedroom where the jewels and papers were kept, and points to a line of investigation: “What men had ever visited the house?

The number must have been very limited. What friends? What tradesmen? What plumbers?”

Surely that is all good Sherlock Holmes, as – even more brilliantly – is this: “How did the murderer get in if Lambie is correct in thinking that she shut the doors? I cannot get away from the conclusion that he had duplicate keys. In that case all becomes comprehensible, for the old lady – whose faculties were quite normal – would hear the lock go and would not be alarmed, thinking that Lambie had returned before her time. Thus, she would only know her danger when the murderer rushed into the room, and would hardly have time to rise, receive the first blow, and fall, as she was found beside the chair upon which she had been sitting. But if he had not the keys, consider the difficulties. If the old lady had opened the flat door her body would have been found in the passage. Therefore the police were driven to the hypothesis that the old lady heard the ring, opened the lower stair door from above (as can be done in most Scottish flats), opened the flat door, never looked over the lighted stair to see who was coming up, but returned to her chair and her magazine, leaving the door open and a free entrance to the murderer. This is possible, but is it not in the highest degree improbable? Miss Gilchrist was nervous of robbery and would not neglect obvious precautions.”

“All in all the document rings with the inflexions of Holmes himself. However, it was to no immediate purpose. The novelist’s newspaper campaign stirred the country and even brought about another government commission to enquire into the affair: but nothing came of it and Slater was allowed to languish in prison.”

Nineteen years later, we are told by the author of the article, Slater was released. But although this was the most famous case that Doyle got mixed up with, it was by no means the only one.

“Minor cases were presented for Sir Arthur’s solution, and it was often his pleasure to put his wits to work on them, usually with success. He relates with great gusto in his autobiography how on the occasion of a burglary within a stone’s throw of his own home, the village constable – with no theories at all – had seized the culprit, while he (Sir Arthur) had got no further than the Holmesian conclusion that the man was left-handed and had nails in his shoes.”!

The Reader’s Digest article, however, leaves my curiosity unsatisfied as to the murder of Marion Gilchrist. If I had been Holmes and you, sweet reader, had been Watson, I would have put my finger-tips together and said: ‘The case, my dear Watson, presents features of interest.’ No, seriously, who killed Marion Gilchrist? I wish I knew. But since I don’t, this is how the Holmes in me might work it out: Helen Lambie, with her paramour, Adams, who else? The two often met on the stairs and a romance had flowered. There was no future for this relationship except flight – to America or even, India, where many Scotsmen came. In her years at Miss Gilchrist’s, Helen had made her own discoveries. She knew Miss Gilchrist had investments in the American railway and the best way to ensure a future was to compel the old lady to sign away her papers, and thereafter, it was up to the boyfriend to make a quick job of it. All the rest was stage-managed. I don’t know how far this works as a Holmesian plot, but if you have a better one, do get back to me.

©Neelum Saran Gour

This column, Gour’s Antiquarium – Retrobrowsings, will take a break for few weeks as our columnist shall be abroad. It shall be resumed soon. We wish Neelum Saran Gour Bon Voyage and happy trip. ~ Managing Editor.

Pix from author and Net.

Neelum Saran Gour is a well known Indian English fiction writer and academic. She has been an active book reviewer, critic, translator, humour columnist, creative writing guide and jury member in the award of national literary prizes. She works as Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad.