Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes

A secret mystery of history
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The Independent Culture

Arthur and George - on the face of it, they made an odd pair. By 1907, Sherlock Holmes had made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both rich and famous. He made a virtue of his celebrity and used it as a soapbox - and the more he campaigned for his causes, the more famous he became. Edalji had just been released from prison, having served three years of a seven-year sentence for mutilating livestock in his father's parish. He was small, myopic and - in the unlovely terminology of the day - half-caste.

The public tended to assume that Doyle must possess the brilliant forensic skills of his most famous creation. Edalji, who had always maintained his innocence, appealed to him to clear his name, which would allow him to practise as a solicitor again. Doyle, recently widowed and in a volatile emotional state, threw himself into the campaign to rehabilitate the unfortunate man. Thanks to his involvement, this became no ordinary attempt to right an apparent miscarriage of justice. Adding to the excitement were hints of racism, allegations of police corruption and a flood of anonymous letters.

The case was widely discussed as Britain's equivalent to the Dreyfus Affair, and it was certainly one of the factors that led to the establishment of the Court of Appeal.

Barnes' narrative takes the two men almost from their cradles to their graves. He deals in alternating sections with their converging lives. Both were professional men who had made their own way in the world and who considered themselves "unofficial Englishmen". Edalji's father, an Anglican clergyman, was by birth a Parsee from Bombay; Doyle was of Irish stock and had grown up in Edinburgh in circumstances more straitened than genteel. Both, at least in Barnes' version, emerge as idealists - Edalji cherishing the law as a great intellectual structure that made sense of life; Doyle imbibing notions of honour and chivalry and searching endlessly for higher truths and final solutions.

On one level this is a straightforward book, its subject the intersecting lives of two men, its narrative chronological and tidily contrapuntal, and its factual basis an apparent guarantee of its authenticity. The historical context has a satisfying solidity, or at least plausibility.

Barnes writes with schoolmasterly authority, quelling any hint of indiscipline in his fictional universe, and with a clarity that is hugely impressive. When, on the first page, he describes the infant Arthur trying a door handle - "He did this with nothing that could be called a purpose, merely the instinctive tourism of infancy" - he nails a moment with elegant precision. When the adult Arthur, holding the hand of the lady who was to become his second wife, experiences "the most tremendous cockstand of his entire life" and "becomes aware of a vast and violent leakage taking place inside his trousers", we instinctively believe what we are told.

When Barnes switches viewpoint in mid section, or moves from past to present tense, we sense these shifts are not whimsical but must serve a higher literary purpose, though not one perhaps that is readily discernible.

In other words, Barnes selects, omits, emphasises and interprets. He controls the content, and he controls how it reaches the reader. As so often in his novels, he reminds us that history is inexact, partial and fanciful, that it is concerned with fiction as much as fact. The mechanics of detection, the due processes of the law, the soothing claims of spiritualism - nothing is quite what it seems. Yet for most of the time this beguiling and enormously readable novel seduces us into believing it all makes sense.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The American Boy' (HarperPerennial)