Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 15, 2006

ARTHUR & GEORGE

A Novel

By Julian Barnes

Knopf. 386 pp. $24.95

The ampersand in the title gives the first clue. Julian Barnes doesn't call his Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Arthur and George , which distinctly asks us to think of two separate men, but rather Arthur & George , which implies a kind of unity composed of two different elements. Ostensibly an account of how the creator of Sherlock Holmes came to interest himself in a miscarriage of justice, the book is in fact more subtly playful than that, as one would expect from the author of Flaubert's Parrot and Talking it Over . Beneath the appearance of a straightforward historical novel, Barnes develops a double-helix, alternating the storyline between his main narrators, before showing how these two disparate, and desperate, outsiders come to each other's rescue.

George Edalji is the son of a Scotswoman and a Parsee convert to Anglicanism who now works as the minister of a country parish. George himself is severely myopic, gentle, unathletic, closely attached to his father and fascinated by the orderliness of the law. Despite occasional taunts about being "colored," he becomes a rising young solicitor specializing in contracts and even writes a monograph on railroad law. He is precise, self-controlled, stolid.

Arthur Conan Doyle, by contrast, is of Irish-Catholic extraction and educated in Edinburgh. He takes up medicine as a profession, but when clients prove scarce he turns more and more to writing stories, many of a highly romantic character. After all, he idealizes chivalry, manliness, hearty sports, duty -- in short, honour, with that very upright British "u" in it. One day he imagines a consulting detective named Sheridan Hope, but later alters the man's name to Sherringford Holmes, though that isn't quite right either. Within a few years, Arthur is, after Kipling, the most famous writer in England.

What brings this pair together? Throughout George's youth, the Edalji family has suffered from various cruel practical jokes perpetrated by persons unknown. Stolen objects are left on the doorstep. The postman delivers unordered goods. Insulting advertisements appear in the newspaper. But then matters suddenly grow bloody: A valuable horse is left to die after having its underbelly ripped apart by some sharp instrument. As time passes, more animals are mutilated, often when the moon is full. Hints are left that the ripper will soon move on to young women. The police grow convinced that George is responsible.

Barnes's account of George's ordeal at the hands of the law he so reveres quickly takes on a harrowing film-noir relentlessness. The chief investigator hates dark-skinned foreigners. Clearly, he decides, these vicious, inhuman atrocities could only be the work of some fanatic without any sense of English decency, probably of mixed blood and consequently half insane. The papers start to describe George as a "typical Oriental," and when this very proper solicitor complains, his attorney points out that "at least they didn't call you inscrutable. Or wily."

Still, George firmly believes in English justice and knows he will be acquitted since the evidence against him is at best circumstantial. He is, naturally, found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison, the first months to be spent in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, Arthur has married, fathered children, coped with his wife's tuberculosis and settled down in baronial splendor. "If life was a chivalric quest," Barnes writes, "then he had rescued the fair Touie [his wife], he had conquered the city, and been rewarded with gold. But there were years to go before he was prepared to accept a role as wise elder to the tribe. What did a knight errant do when he came home to a wife and two children in South Norwood?"

What he does is fall in love with another woman.


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