Charles Matthews's Reviews > Arthur & George

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
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Dec 07, 09

Of all the products of the Victorian imagination, Sherlock Holmes may be the most enduring. He not only begat countless progeny -- quirky sleuths and keen-eyed gumshoes of all ages, genders and ethnicities – but he also continues to fire the imaginations of writers who don't usually produce detective stories, such as Michael Chabon and Mitch Cullin, both of whom recently produced novels – Chabon's The Final Solution and Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind -- about an aged Holmes encountering the horrors of World War II.

Julian Barnes is the latest to fall under the Holmesian spell, with his new novel, Arthur & George, which was short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. The Arthur of the title is Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who grew exasperated with the public's enthusiasm for the detective. He tried to bump Holmes off by tossing him over the Reichenbach Falls, but was forced to resuscitate him for further adventures. The sly irony of Arthur & George is that Doyle assumes the role of Holmes, adopting his methods and mannerisms to solve a mystery.

The George of Barnes' title is less well-known than the Arthur, but he was also a real person: George Edalji, a young lawyer who became the chief suspect in a series of mysterious livestock mutilations near the town in Staffordshire where he lived. His mother was Scottish; his father, Shapurji, was born in Bombay and became a clergyman in the Church of England and was appointed vicar of the parish of Great Wyrley.

As you might expect, an Indian vicar in a provincial parish attracted the wrong kind of attention. In 1892, the family began to be subjected to a series of harassing pranks -- anonymous letters, unsolicited packages and the like. The local constabulary suspected that the adolescent George, who was 16 when the harassment began, was the perpetrator of the pranks, which abruptly ceased in 1896. George completed his legal studies and began work as a solicitor. In 1903, he was still living with his family when someone began mutilating cattle and horses on nearby farms.

This time, the police were certain that he was guilty, and George was arrested, tried and sentenced to seven years in prison. Barnes makes George just enigmatic enough that we understand why people might think him guilty, while at the same time evoking our sympathy, heightening the pain and poignancy as he suffers a serious injustice. He served three years of the sentence before he was released, whereupon he set out to establish his innocence and regain his livelihood. His case attracted the attention of Doyle, who set out to right the wrongs he believed had been done to Edalji.

Arthur's conflicted relationship with the creature of his imagination provides some delicious moments as he assumes the mantle of Holmes – even casting his private secretary in the role of Watson – to solve the case. Arthur meets with the chief constable of Great Wyrley, who asserts that George must be guilty because he's a "half-breed." Convinced that his presentation of the evidence has overwhelmed Arthur's attempts to exonerate George, the chief constable crows to his wife, "Sherlock Holmes baffled! … I have taught him a thing or two about the real world tonight." Exasperated by the chief constable's smugness, "Doyle wondered if he would ever cease being punished for having invented Sherlock Holmes." And later, when Arthur's zeal to unravel the case leads him to bend the law too much, George is the one to comment that it was "the fault of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation."

Arthur & George is a juicily entertaining novel, with subtly drawn characters, a deft handling of the gradual revelations of the Edalji affair, and a superb evocation of the Victorian-Edwardian sensibility, done without pastiche or condescension. The novel sometimes slows down in the sections that deal with matters that have little to do with George's case, and it's hard to get satisfactory fictional closure when you're dealing with historical events. In place of an ending, Barnes gives us an overlong coda in which George attends a séance in the Royal Albert Hall after the death of Arthur, who had become a firm believer in spiritualism. But Barnes has spun a wholly engaging fiction out of the facts of the Edalji case, producing both an intriguing detective story and a penetrating study of two distinctly different characters: the brawny, outgoing Arthur and the solitary, introverted George -- opposites drawn together with a kind of magnetic inevitability.
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