Arthur and George (2014)

by Julian Barnes

The Arthur of Arthur and George is Arthur Conan Doyle. The novel is based on a true story. Doyle, guilt-stricken after the death of the wife he no longer loved, took on the cause of exonerating a man who was falsely convicted and imprisoned for mutilating farm animals. George Edalgi had been freed by that time, but his reputation must be restored if he is to resume his career as a barrister.

The meeting between Arthur and George comes well into the book, and before then Barnes tells their back stories in alternating chapters.

George is a British citizen of Indian Parsee descent, the son of a rural vicar. Solitary and described as “stolid,” he is the object of suspicion when livestock in the parish are found with their bellies slashed. The bigoted police chief targets George, seen as an outsider even though he is a British citizen. Despite no real evidence against him, George is convicted and imprisoned; he writes Doyle after his release.

Arthur then is at a low point. He has been in a platonic love affair for a decade. When his wife dies after years with consumption, Arthur realizes that he has been emotionally unfaithful to her and feels guilty. He also is discouraged that the public wants more of Sherlock Holmes, whom he finds an albatross. Never before had he agreed to assume a Holmes role in solving a case, but he abhors the miscarriage of justice for George. The case restores his love of life. 

In clearing George’s name, Arthur exposed the racism of British society at the start of the 20th century. His work on the case led to the creation of a Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. All but one of the documents quoted in Arthur and George are actual.

The novel caters to many reading tastes: for readers of historical fiction, it offers a historically accurate account of a travesty of justice and its reversal; for readers of procedural detective stories, a look at the step-by-step process Sherlock Holmes’s creator used to exonerate an innocent man; for readers of biographies, an engrossing portrait of Holmes’s creator by one of Britain’s foremost novelists. The early chapters fill in details of Doyle’s years before he took up George’s case, and the later chapters recount his happy second marriage and his fascination with “spiritism,” the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.


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