In a 1907 Telegraph article, designed to kindle public sympathy and indignation, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “The first sight which I ever had of Mr. George Edalji was enough in itself both to convince me of the extreme improbability of his being guilty of the crime for which he was condemned, and to suggest some at least of the reasons which had led to his being suspected.”
In 1903, Edalji, the son of a Parsi turned Anglican clergyman and his English wife, was convicted of the ghastly crime of “cattle ripping,” the exsanguinations of horses and cows via a vicious slash to the belly. Public outcry led to Edalji’s early release, but the government offered him no compensation or pardon, leaving Edalji unable to return to his beloved profession of solicitor. Conan Doyle, accustomed to writing of detectives rather than playing one, took up the Edalji case in an effort to lighten the “days of darkness” following his wife’s death. The crusade would eventually result in the long-overdue establishment of England’s Criminal Court of Appeals.
That arresting initial glimpse, in which Conan Doyle at once deduces Edalji’s severe myopia as well as his dark skin and unharmonious features (exophthalmic eyes, jowliness), occurs late in Julian Barnes’s Booker-short-listed novel Arthur & George. More than half the book passes before the characters meet or even hear of one another. The intervening chapters detail the men’s various childhoods, adult careers, and in the case of Arthur, amours: Barnes suggests Conan Doyle required the stimulation of the Edalji case to effect his second marriage and its consummation. Section headings announce the name of the man discussed, and, as in a friendly game of badminton, Barnes chucks the birdie of third-person omniscient narration cheerfully back and forth between them. For the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, such formal sport is positively restrained.
A deft blend of genres—thriller, courtroom drama, biography, romance— Arthur & George never proves less than dexterous. As in previous books, Barnes negotiates the actual and the imagined effortlessly. And yet, there’s a hollowness, or perhaps hermeticism, at the novel’s core. Sherlock Holmes and his creator have made frequent appearances in books of the last couple years, and this one, too, can seem an exercise in homage or ventriloquism rather than an autonomous effort. Still, Barnes’s affection for the diffident solicitor Edalji, who stubbornly refuses to chalk up his ordeal to “race prejudice,” and the overgrown schoolboy Conan Doyle, who all but dons a deerstalker in pursuit of justice, isn’t derivative—or elementary—in the least.