Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes does a magic trick in his historical novel Arthur & George. He makes the index cards disappear. He scoops up what must have undeniably been copious notes and footnotes, shuffles those note cards, deftly blends them, and fans the deck into a colorful moving picture of the sites, sounds, intrigues, and essentials of a true turn-of-the-century London adventure.

Sometimes one reads a good book and thinks, “I could do that,” but Arthur & George leaves one thinking, “How did he do that?” Well, perhaps Barnes employs patience, practice, and hard work; but it still reads like magic.

The book has two historical figures as characters, famous Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle’s friend George Edalji. Both are introduced to us as children. Only gradually do we share George’s realization that he is perceived as “different” by his fellow school children. When one bully accosts George on the playground, taunting, “You aren’t a right sort!” we think at first maybe it is simply because George is shy and awkward, or maybe even because he is smarter than the other kids. But the reader learns, as George learns, that he is different because of his skin tone and ancestry: One of his parents is from India.

Low Level Spoiler Alert: I’m not going to give away the outcome, but I am going to reveal an unexpected irony from this story. I believe this gets to the heart of why Julian Barnes said in a Times interview that he doesn’t actually care for Doyle’s writing. I did get the feeling, however, that Barnes likes Doyle as a person.

George Edalji studied law and became an attorney. He was a published author; his book Railway Law for the Man in the Train was part of the Wilson’s Legal Handy Books series. He was a logical man who believed in law as the foundation of civilization. When he was falsely accused, by anonymous letters, of mutilating horses in the middle of the night, he could never have expected the incompetent, wrong-minded police investigation that ensued. He couldn’t believe what flimsy evidence they used to convict him. When Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of this travesty of justice, he (in Doyle’s own words) “made a lot of noise” until Edalji’s name was cleared. What troubled Edalji in spite of his gratitude is that Doyle’s case, upon close examination, was no less circumstantial than the one that put George Edalji behind bars in the first place. No one else seemed to notice this problem. It was ultimately Doyle’s popularity as a writer, a sportsman, and a grand Englishman that won the day, not his mastery of the law. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes’ “science of deduction” is sometimes flawed.

Consider this exchange between Holmes and Watson in The Sign of the Four,

“A savage!” (Watson exclaimed. “Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small.”

“Hardly that,” said (Holmes). “When first I saw signs of strange weapons I was inclined to think so, but the remarkable character of the footmarks caused me to reconsider my views. Some of the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are small men, but none could have left such marks as that. The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet. The sandal-wearing Mohammedan has the great toe well separated from the others because the thong is commonly passed between. These little darts, too, could only be shot in one way. They are from a blow-pipe. Now, then, where are we to find our savage?”

Circumstantial, my dear Watson. As is this passage from A Scandal in Bohemia,

“The man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence–‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs.”

In fairness to Doyle, it took some considerable time to glean those two examples of political incorrectness from a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories.

The point is, Arthur believed in George with the same emotional fervor with which he believed in Spiritualism. There is a very humorous passage near the end of Arthur & George in which George Edalji attends a spiritualist gathering of several thousand people at the Royal Albert Hall who are attempting to contact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after his death. The ‘medium’ on stage goes into a trance. Presently, she tells the audience she senses many souls present behind her. She raises her arms and straightens her back as though the spiritual forces are pushing her forward. Then, apparently, the departed souls begin speaking through the medium to their still-living relatives in the audience. Barnes writes,

“George listens to the crowd of spirits being given fleeting description. The impression is that they are all clamouring for attention, fighting to convey their messages. A facetious if logical question comes into George’s mind … If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue?”

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