Conan Doyle for the Defense

The photograph depicts an atlas and an old-fashioned brass lamp with a large white bulb, next to a misty window in a wooden frame. There is also a stoppered glass bottle in the foreground. The entire effect suggests a Victorian home or office.

By Eliana H.

Although I’ve enjoyed many a Sherlock Holmes adaptation in the form of film or television, or even spinoff books, I will admit that I haven’t read the original stories myself. I certainly don’t know a great deal about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of the residents of 221b Baker Street. I do, however, know quite a bit more now than before reading 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 by Margalit Fox. Nonfiction is not my usual wheelhouse, but I will admit my interest was piqued by the book’s cover and description, which happened to be available as an e-audiobook when I was looking for my next listen. (It is also available in print and as an e-book).

The book cover has the title and subtitle in stylized fonts with the effect of an old-time newspaper, superimposed above illustrations of a jeweled necklace and a hammer.

Many people have heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, specifically of the series of detective stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. His impact extends beyond those characters, though. Conan Doyle was trained as a physician himself, and he became enthusiastic about spiritualism in his later life. He also assisted with real-life criminal cases on occasion. One such situation is the focus of Conan Doyle for the Defense. That case involved an emigrant to Scotland who was wrongfully arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. 

Oscar Slater was a German Jew who had traveled to different parts of the world before ending up in Glasgow, Scotland in 1901. Then, in December 1908, a wealthy spinster named Marion Gilchrist was brutally killed in her home in that city. A very tenuous connection was made to Slater, and the prevailing attitudes and crime-solving techniques of the time ensnared him firmly, leading to his conviction and imprisonment in His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead. Eventually, Conan Doyle was able to help win Slater his freedom. 

Fox’s descriptions of the case, the criminal justice system, and the Edwardian time period provided vivid images of the tale as it unfolded. Excerpts of court documents, letters written by Slater, and Conan Doyle’s own texts provide additional insight into the case. The print book includes maps and photographs, as well as extensive notes to support the text. Fans of Sherlock Holmes may be interested to learn more about Conan Doyle’s life and inspiration for his characters, and the miscarriage of justice highlighted in the book can provide a reminder for all of us that there is always more to a case than appears at first glance. 

Eliana is a Children’s Research Specialist and Instructor at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).

Devil House

The cover of the book shows an old house with two turrets silhouetted in black and white against a black background. Beneath it, against a white background, is a red outlined reflection of the house's shape, illustrated to resemble a vampire bat. The red and black lettering is in a Gothic style and gives the cover a retro, pulpy feel.

It’s changed since you were here, or else it hasn’t
It was special, it was deadly
It was ours and then it wasn’t

– The Mountain Goats

By Ben H.

An entertaining book full of mystery, empathy, and suspense, Devil House is also a thoughtful examination of authorial responsibility. John Darnielle excels at building meaning by layering stories. As the frontman of The Mountain Goats, he’s a storytelling genius. He’s magical and efficient. He’s an all-time great songwriter.

Speaking of authorial responsibility, I should state upfront that I think Darnielle is a better songwriter than he is novelist. Devil House would have benefited from heavy editing. That being said, I like the book and I consider my responsibility as the author of this review now satisfied.

Devil House is the story of true crime writer Gage Chandler. Chandler fictionalizes true stories for money, the job of all novelists, really, but he isn’t Thomas Wolfe writing about Asheville. Chandler writes the new Hulu documentary about a mother who poisoned her kids or a couple who killed boarders and buried them under the hyacinths. Chandler writes books that are adapted for the small screen and become the must watch shows of the week. He approaches the gruesome devil house murders of Evelyn Gates (the greedy landlord) and Marc Buckler (the sleezy real estate mogul wannabe) the same way he approached previous cases, but things get complicated.

The titular house is the center of the novel and serves as a cipher for all the characters. Chandler, Buckler, Gates, Seth, Alex, and Derrick all revolve around its foundations in one way or another. It’s Chandler’s next project; it’s work. Buckler and Gates see it as an asset or potential asset. High school students Derrick, Seth, and Alex use the abandoned house as a hideout. They make it a castle. It’s a safe place to sleep at night. Many of the highlights of the book occur when Chandler describes the boys and their relationship with the house.

Chandler’s methods are extreme. He’s the Daniel Day Lewis of true crime writers. Joaquin Phoenix ain’t got nothing on Gage Chandler. He lives where the crimes were committed (he literally moves into the building known as devil house). He holds items held by those involved as if they were talismans. He haunts eBay looking for paraphernalia tangentially connected to the case. He becomes the victims. He becomes the murderer. Chandler recreates lives based on evidence left behind. He imagines conversations and relationships based on the contents of a junk drawer. He establishes character and personality based on notebooks full of doodles. He gives his characters depth. He uses empathy to create details and narratives for his characters; but has he cold-heartedly monetized empathy?

While living in devil house, an old case that involves the murder of two students by their high school teacher, which Chandler turned into the book The White Witch of Morro Bay, comes back to haunt him. He receives a devastating letter from someone questioning his depiction of a certain character. Chandler prides himself on being fair to his characters, but how can you be fair to someone’s son when to you they are just a character you have partially fleshed out? His resolve shaken, he questions his methods and his career.

For those thinking that what this book sounds like it needs is a medieval section in middle English, you’re in luck! For me, this strange interlude emphasized the depth of the world-building that Derrick, Seth, and Alex were doing. It’s like I always say, “whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” I also always say that if you can cut the section in middle English from the book you wrote in 2022, you should.

As in Wolf in White Van, Darnielle moves back and forth in time, weaving patterns and stacking stories. The payoff is well worth it. I reread the reveal a couple of times because it was so satisfying. The obvious takeaway for me was a critique of true crime books, shows, and movies. Devil House also offers a commentary on how society treats its vulnerable members. Whatever meanings you find inside Devil House, I think you’ll enjoy exploring most of its pages.

Harbor me when I’m hungry
Harbor me when I’m hunted

– The Mountain Goats

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

The Cold Vanish

The book cover is an aerial photograph of a mountainous area covered in conifers, with a cloudy gray-white mist settled over the dark green of the treetops.

“Searching for a missing person, after that first week, is a believer’s game” (219).

The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands is a gem of a book, written by Jon Billman, a fiction and journalism professor at Northern Michigan University. He also writes for Outside magazine, where I found the article that was the germ of the idea for The Cold Vanish. Billman tells the stories of a myriad of the disappeared, people who seemingly stepped off a trail at Mesa Verde or Yellowstone or Olympic and were never seen again. He intertwines their (shorter) stories with the book-length account of Randy Gray, father of Jacob Gray, a young man who parked his bike on the side of the road in Olympic and vanished into the woods of northern Washington. Although the disappearance is Jacob’s, the story really belongs to Randy, as we see the lengths he goes to in order to keep hope alive and continue the search for his son. Randy is a character – a Christian hippie surfer and building contractor, full of boundless energy and humor, enthusiastic, and generous. He is also willing to explore (if not exactly embrace with open arms) any theory that might locate Jacob and give him and his family some closure. My favorite anecdote about Randy: “Randy Gray cannot tell a lie, and so declares the two avocados rolling around somewhere in the back of the Arctic Fox when the customs agent asks if we have any produce. The agent pretends she doesn’t hear him, hands our passports back, and welcomes us to Canada” (274).

One of the stories really struck a chord with me. I’ve been to Mesa Verde, and walked the trail Billman mentions from the interpretive center to Spruce Tree House – “more of a sidewalk – it’s wheelchair accessible for less than a quarter mile, where visitors can view the [Anasazi cliff] dwellings from the shade of the overhanging cliff” (119-120). Yet 51-year-old Mitchell Dale Stehling disappeared while walking that trail and was not found until last year (his remains were located after the book was published, in August 2020). No other park visitor has stayed missing from Mesa Verde since the park was founded, and the area encompasses just over 50,000 acres. How could someone disappear off of a trail adjacent to the park’s gift shop?

The accounts of the disappeared have many explanations, some plausible, some completely off-the-charts crazy. I love a book like this that takes a journalistic viewpoint and presents the theories without passing comment; a book about conspiracy theories *not* written by a conspiracy theorist. In that respect, The Cold Vanish resembles another of my favorites in this genre, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide by Robert Michael Pyle. In that book, acclaimed naturalist Pyle explains why the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest would be conducive to the existence of the Sasquatch – should such a creature exist. Like Pyle’s book, Billman’s presentation is open-minded and even-handed, and he makes valid observations and connections about why someone like Randy Gray might entertain the wild ideas of psychics and Bigfoot hunters. “Randy is the ultimate optimist. He’s wildly curious. The seeker from the Who song. ‘What else do I got?’ he says. ‘What else can I do?'”(217). Billman makes the reader understand Randy’s quiet desperation for any tenuous thread to follow.

He also explores other stories and disappearances: people who choose to go missing, the hunt for the Utah survivalist “Mountain Man” Knapp (who evaded authorities for seven years by breaking into remote cabins and stealing food and guns), and the serial killers in the Great Basin and in the Yosemite area who sought victims in remote wilderness areas. One of the best anecdotes is about Alan Duffy, a bloodhound trainer and handler who teaches his dogs, Mindy Amber and R.C., to search for the missing with a single verbal cue – either “Gizmo!” for cadavers, or “Find!” for a living person.

The book will leave you full of wonder at the majesty and hidden depths in what might seem like a benign, unspoiled setting, but which really harbors dangers that amateurs and enthusiasts ignore to their peril. You will also ponder the number of missing persons cases still unsolved: where are the (still) disappeared in our national parks and wild places, and will they ever be found?

The Cold Vanish is also available from HCLS as an eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.