A story about this — 7 years ago
What are a writer’s responsibilities? In a famous aphorism by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Homes, they are “firstly, to be intelligible, secondly, to be interesting, and thirdly, to be clever.”
English author Julian Barnes has taken Doyle’s exacting criteria to heart. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize for his novels Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England, Barnes has delivered a passel of ferociously clever works, intensely literate stories that mingle satire with sometimes raucous humour.
Now, melding his sensibilities with those of Doyle, Barnes draws upon copious historical resources to reenact a fascinating episode in Sir Arthur’s life: the Edalji Case. Documenting one of the few times when the mystery writer employed his celebrity to an actual crime, Arthur & George delivers an engrossing true-life Victorian mystery story that, in a time of racial profiling and increased fear of the outsider, still has unfortunate relevance.
This is not the first time Doyle has graced the pages of other authors of fiction. William Hjortsberg had Doyle team up with Harry Houdini to track a serial killer in the fantasy Nevermore. Mark Frost twice used Doyle as an excuse to visit conspiracies of the occult in The List of 7 and The 6 Messiahs. While both authors presented entertaining forays into speculative fiction, neither can match Barnes for pure style enhanced with empathy and grace. And while the Edalji case may not be as fanciful or complex as the ornate gothic mysteries of Frost and Hjortsberg, it makes up in superb characterization and theme what it lacks in adventure.
George Edalji is an English solicitor, a man who fervently believes “that he is English, he is a student of the laws of England, and one day, God willing, he will marry according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England,” However, George’s father is Indian, a Parsee, and as such, George is constantly judged as being different.
In an occasion of monstrous discrimination, Edalji is convicted of horrific crimes on absurdly thin evidence, and sentenced to seven years in prison. Doyle, wielding the skills of his fictional detective, takes up George’s cause, eventually uncovering precisely how English police decided that “a respectable lawyer, bat-blind and of slight physique, [became] a degenerate who flits across fields at dead of night, evading the watch of twenty special constables, in order to wade through the blood of mutilated animals.”
While the mystery is a fascinating one, far more realistic than those of Holmes, Arthur & George truly functions as a meticulous literary duet between two men, outwardly dissimilar, yet each possessing qualities that make them, in Doyle’s words, “unofficial Englishmen.”
George is almost the stereotypical Englishman, armed with a placid demeanour and firm belief in the rule of law, yet his skin marks him as someone of differing values, and therefore must be feared. Arthur, by way of contrast, is thought of as the ultimate Englishman, yet his bombastic attitude, Scottish heritage, and unwavering belief in spiritualism set him far apart from his countrymen.
Barnes fills his pages with pointed subtext concerning governmental whitewash techniques and racial profiling, but they are subtle barbs, piercing the skin ever so slightly. Like his earlier novels, especially the rambunctiously funny The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Barnes never lets a diatribe get in the way of a good story.
And Arthur & George is indeed a good, good story, intelligent, interesting, and complex. While the reticent George ultimately decides that “there are worse fates . . . than to be a footnote in legal history,” Barnes has no such reluctance. In Arthur & George, he has brought about a graceful re-imagining of a forgotten event, in a manner that would do Sir Arthur proud.