Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews

Arthur and George

Julian Barnes
Random House (August 2005) 360 pages
ISBN: 0 2240 7703 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! In his autobiography, the celebrated writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that after the death of his first wife in 1906 he was "for some time... unable to settle to work until the Edalji case came suddenly to turn my energies into an entirely unexpected channel."

The channel into which he turned would have been very familiar to his most famous creation, the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, but solving real crimes, tackling real cases of inadequate police investigation, and fighting real cases of wrongful conviction was not something Conan Doyle would normally do. He was a writer who was renowned for creating imaginary crime scenarios and controlling an imaginary cast of characters. And he resented being identified with Holmes, as frequently happened. Nevertheless, when the Edalji case came to his attention, he saw an injustice which he resolved to remedy.

So, he brought his intelligence and his imaginative powers to bear on an actual case in which a young, myopic, half-caste solicitor, George Edalji, had been wrongly convicted of maiming and killing a neighbour's horse. Edalji suffered three years of his seven year sentence of penal servitude before being released without explanation and, most importantly, without pardon. Without that pardon, he could not be reinstated as a solicitor, and his life was ruined. Conan Doyle, having read the details of the crime, the trial and the sentence, applied his Holmes-like detective skills to the case in the belief that Edalji was completely innocent.

For the time that it took to obtain George Edalji's pardon, Arthur (as he is called throughout this book) turned from writer to sleuth. In effect, this is what Barnes has done too. He has used his own considerable skills as a novelist--and his own intelligence and wit--to delve into the archives and examine the historical evidence in order to create a novelistic presentation of fact. And one can see the contemporary relevance of this story in the continuing power of the media to sway public opinion (this is the way in which Arthur Conan Doyle chose to challenge the authorities) and also in the continuing power of government bodies to fudge the issue and wriggle out of blame in order to avoid compensation payments.

Readers who are familiar with Julian Barnes's work will recognize his ironic sense of humour, his understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, motivation and vagaries of his characters, and his unique story-telling skills. Arthur & George, however, is very different compared to his usual work.

Barnes has approached his novelistic presentation of fact in short, alternating chapters which present George Edalji, then Arthur Conan Doyle, first as small boys, then as young men, then as complex adults. So, we follow the men through their early lives and learn about their different family backgrounds, their studies, their everyday experiences and their personal traits. Not until half-way through the book do their lives become entangled. This is a difficult and daring method of introducing the story and, for me, it did not altogether succeed. I found that jumping so briefly and so often between two such different men was uncomfortable and disorientating. And the appearance of Inspector Campbell of Staffordshire Constabulary introduces a long saga of police ineptitude and outright prejudice which, although based on fact (or perhaps because it was fact), became so predictably unpleasant that I found it hard to read on. Only when Arthur Conan Doyle finally stepped centre stage and began acting like his famous detective did I find the story becoming gripping.

The story of Arthur and George is an interesting story. It is interesting, too, to read about Arthur Conan Doyle's interest in spiritualism and to follow the sceptical George to the huge gathering of 6,000 spiritualists at the memorial meeting that was held for Arthur at the Royal Albert Hall. Arthur had "passed over," but his empty chair was center stage, and many people attested to his presence.

Maybe, as the blurb on this book suggests, Barnes's new excursion into fictionalized history in Arthur & George will draw new readers to his work. Popular and fashionable as this new merging of fact and fiction is, however, it seems to me that it hampers Barnes's true imaginative and inventive skills. I hope he feels this way, too, or at least does not confine himself to this particular "entirely unexpected channel."


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