Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, received thousands, if not tens of thousands of pleas for help in solving unsolved crimes, righting wrongs, and setting justice right. The pleas came from all over the world, from people who believed he could help. Often the pleas were written directly to Sherlock Holmes – a testament to the power that a fictional character could hold over the imagination.
Grieving for his recently deceased wife, grieving more for the guilt he carried for having been in love with another woman for the decade leading to his wife’s death (she suffered from consumption or tuberculosis), he opens the mail one morning to find a plea from a man named George Edjali, a barrister, born in England of a Parsee father (native of Bombay) and a Scottish mother. Edjali had been arrested, tried and convicted of mutilating horses and cows in rural Staffordshire, where his father was an Anglican vicar.
Doyle immediately sees the miscarriage of justice. Perhaps because of the guilt he was carrying, perhaps because of the need to break away from the depression he has experiencing, perhaps because of the outrage he felt at what had happened to Edjali, Doyle does not give the letter to his secretary to send a polite dismissal. He accepts the request. And because he does, British justice will ultimately change.
This is a true story. In 2006, novelist, essayist, translator and art critic Julian Barnes wrote a phenomenally well-researched novel of what happened, entitled Arthur & George. Earlier this year, ITV broadcast a three-part series in Britain based on the book, staring Martin Clunes (“Doc Martin”) as Doyle and Arsher Ali as George. The series recently aired in the U.S. as well.
The book is a wonder. And it’s also a wonder that the TV series could extract the story it did from the novel.
Barnes tells the stories of the two men from childhood forward, because so much of what their entwined story becomes originated in their childhoods. And he tells it in the present tense, which adds an immediacy and a dramatic effect to the narrative. He gets inside the heads of both of his leading characters, something a television program couldn’t succeed as well as doing and so didn’t try. But the program does succeed at telling the story, focusing on the mystery of what actually happened.
Edjali, the barrister, has an almost childlike faith in British justice, a faith that survives his arrest and imprisonment experience, but just barely. Doyle, the writer whose involvement would lead rather quickly to a review and investigation by the British Home Office, is less taken with British justice, and fully understands how it could go off the rails, with biased police investigators desperate to find the culprit and an incompetent trial judge. (Because of this case, Britain would create a court of appeals.)
Barnes has written numerous novels, collections of essays and short stories, and art criticism. He received the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for his novel The Sense of an Ending, only one of his many prizes and recognitions
What is clear from Barnes’ account of Doyle and Edjali is that Doyle needed Edjali as much as Edjali needed Doyle. They would not become lifelong friends, although Doyle did invite him to the wedding to his second wife. But their need of each other at the coinciding time of their lives was mutual and, ultimately, beneficial.
The story of Arthur & George is fascinating. How Julian Barnes tells that story is equally fascinating.
Top photograph: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edjali at the time Doyle investigated his case.