Michael Dirda
Trapped in a loveless marriage, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tackles the case of a wrongly imprisoned man.

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.

In his late thirties, Arthur meets the 21-year-old Jean Leckie, she flirts with him, he is smitten and the two soon confess their undying devotion to each other. But what now?

"It is impossible for him not to love Jean; and for her not to love him. It is impossible for him to divorce Touie, the mother of his children, whom he still regards with affection and respect; besides, only a cad would abandon an invalid. Finally, it is impossible to turn the affair into an intrigue by making Jean his mistress. Each of the three parties has his or her honour, even if Touie does not know hers is being considered in absentia . For that is an essential condition: Touie must not know."

Barnes spends the central portion of his novel on Arthur's tormenting ethical dilemma. For a man of character, the problem is, after all, fundamentally insoluble. So Arthur determines that his love for Jean will remain platonic, throws himself into work and his growing interest in spiritualism, behaves impeccably with Touie. Months, then years pass. Arthur finally admits to himself -- in a devastating sentence -- that "he has loved [his wife] as best a man can, given that he did not love her."

"There is no way out," Arthur realizes. "That is the beastliness of his position; or rather, each beckoning exit is marked Misery. In Lasker's Chess Magazine he reads of a position called Zugzwang , in which the player is unable to move any piece in any direction to any square without making his already imperiled state worse. This is what Arthur's life feels like."

And then, after nearly 10 years in which he has loved Jean and lived a lie, Arthur learns about George Edalji. The obvious miscarriage of justice galvanizes the knight-errant. Since the public identifies him with Sherlock Holmes, he will act as his burdensome creation would and clear the innocent and unmask the guilty.

Since Arthur & George is based on a true incident, many Baker Street fans will know the course and outcome of the investigations. But I won't say more about them here. More to the point, Barnes's artistry underscores that these two proper gentlemen are both, in fact, victimized by the systems they admire most -- the law and chivalry. Together, they are nonetheless able to redeem lives wracked by hopelessness and frustration.

Barnes's writing is, as usual, masterly throughout Arthur & George , not only as the pages shift from one man's consciousness to the other's but also in the way their author keeps the reader on edge. Facts are interpreted, then reinterpreted; the bigoted speak convincingly; nothing turns out quite as expected; and even the book's coda delivers a final shock.

Most of all, though, Barnes knows how to control readers' reactions, making us sicken as the Ripper reaches inside his jacket, feel horrified and indignant during George's show trial, suffer with Arthur in his attempts to remain an honorable man while still desiring a woman not his wife. There's an occasional bit of Sherlockiana -- despair is likened to the treacherous Grimpen Mire -- and even some neat, low-keyed humor. Arthur travels to meet George's parents and sister Maud:

"The family was glad of his arrival, but not effusive; conscious of his fame, yet not overawed. He was relieved for once to find himself in the presence of three people, none of whom, he was prepared to wager, had ever read a single one of his books."

In the novel's final pages, Arthur has matured into a convinced spiritualist, to the dismay of most of his admirers then and now. Yet Barnes's novel allows us to better understand why and how this may have come about. Still, I like best George's simple and down-to-earth -- indeed, rather English -- view of religion: "He went to church because it gave Maud pleasure that he did so. As far as the afterlife went, he thought he would wait and see." ยท

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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