Local authors Steven Womack and Stephen Hines have done a sly bit of detecting. Their new book, The True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Berkley, 290 pp., $22.95), illuminates a rarely seen side of the granddaddy of mystery writers while examining the case-cracking strategies that made his whodunits so famous. A collection of the esteemed author’s writings on two British criminal cases that occurred in the early 1900s, True Crime Files was compiled by Hines, while Womack provided an introduction and background material on Conan Doyle’s life.
As far as collaborations go, this one seems, well, elementary. Womack, no stranger to the deucedly elusive intricacies of the detective genre, has earned a name for himself as a New York Times notable writer with a series of mysteries featuring Music City sleuth Harry James Denton. Hines, who works as director of communications for the State of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services, calls himself a “literary prospector”; he has had considerable success searching for the overlooked work of famous authors. So far, he’s unearthed riches by the likes of Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. But his biggest find yet may be a number of articles penned by Conan Doyle for the London Daily Telegrapha discovery that provided some of the material for the new book.
The articles, written in 1907, were part of Conan Doyle’s efforts to defend a timid East Indian lawyer named George Edalji. Convicted of a series of animal mutilations, Edalji had been framed by the police (who also accused him of belonging to a cult) and ill-served by an incompetent judgea turn of events of much ado to the British press. The illegality of it all aroused Conan Doyle’s ire, and he set out to prove Edalji’s innocence. His writings on the case, as well as responses from the public and the authorities, comprise the first part of True Crime Files.
The story of Oscar Slater, a decidedly unsavory character to whom Conan Doyle offered his Sherlockian services a few years later, makes up the second part. A jewel thief, an inveterate gambler and a German Jew, Slater was apparently framed by the Glasgow police and convicted of murder. The man Conan Doyle himself called “a blackguard” fit the profile of a killer, and his ethnicity did nothing to endear him to the law. Slater had served 16 years of a life sentence when the famed author came to his rescue with a letter-writing campaign and a fresh investigation of the case, creating a potent argument for his innocence.
True Crime Files presents a portrait of a writer who, in fact as well as in fiction, tirelessly sought out justice. Through his efforts on behalf of Edalji and Slater, Conan Doyle helped lay the groundwork for the creation of a court of criminal appeals in England. As for the final verdicts in each case, Hines and Womack let readers weigh the evidence and decide for themselves. A capital idea, indeed.
The unassuming community of Murfreesborolong a hotbed of under-the-radar musical talentis now home to an alternative publication called A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press. The editor of the publication, a woman known simply as Jerianne, is a Tennessee transplant who, along with a staff of national volunteers, produces the grassroots guide four times a year. Offering info on underground publishers and projects in the United States and abroad, A Reader’s Guide ($4, 86 pages) also includes articles on newsworthy events and reviews of likeminded periodicals, from politically inflected journals to comic books to magazines devoted to music, literature and film. A host of original substitutes for mass-marketed materials is listed in the guide, along with details on how to procure them.
Production-wise, A Reader’s Guide itself is an unpretentious, rough-and-tumble publication with an earnestness that’s endearing. The bottom line hereand in every magazine that gets a mentionis freedom of speech. So if you’re a left-winger or a Wobbly, a red or a rad, if you’re seeking an alternative to the alternative, or you’re just plain curious, A Reader’s Guide offers a number of novel intellectual outlets. Of course, you won’t find the guide at your local chain bookstorethat’s why they call it the underground press. Try the small independent book retailer Halcyon Books, which specializes in such titles, located at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Halcyon. Or write to: A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press, P.O. Box 330156, Murfreesboro, TN 37133. On the net: www.undergroundpress.org.
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