Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sherlock Rides Again

From my review of Julian Barnes' Arthur and George in Starmag today:

IN the mid-19th century Britain, the Great Wryly Outrages made legal history. A young solicitor was wrongly convicted of brutally slashing cattle in rural Staffordshire and later pardoned. The case eventually led to the setting up of the Criminal Appeals Court, but the human side of the story had been all but lost until Julian Barnes decided to make this the subject of his 10th novel.

The Arthur of the title is no other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. While plenty is known about Doyle’s life from his own memoirs and writings, almost nothing is recorded about George Edalji, the young man accused of the crime. It’s a tribute to Barnes’ skill as a storyteller that George emerges no less fully fleshed than Arthur – and even the more interesting of the two.

The lives and characters of the two men and the forces that shaped them are brought into sharp contrast in short alternating chapters mapping out their earliest memories, family life, schooling and early careers. Arthur is raised by his “Mam” on a diet of chivalric stories that feed his desire to live as heroic a life as possible while George is the son of a vicar, a shy, serious boy raised to be scrupulously truthful.

George’s upbringing seems to be quintessentially English, so it comes as something of a shock to learn several pages into the novel that his father is in fact a Parsee born in India. Could the cruel spate of anonymous letters and hoaxes aimed at his family be racially motivated? George does not even want to entertain the idea, even in the harrowing court scenes where it is clear that he is being framed and sentenced to hard labour for a crime that it would have been impossible for him to commit.

One wonders which of the men actually needs the other more as their lives come together when Arthur is asked to take on the case. After years of trying to behave honourably towards both his sick wife Touie and the woman whom he truly loves, Arthur feels he has reached a crisis point in his own life and he welcomes the distraction. And having killed off Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach falls (in The Final Problem), he is only too happy to jump into the role of his detective hero.

Arthur’s powers of deduction prove every bit as sharp as those of the fictional Holmes, and with his secretary Woods serving as his Watson, he manages to solve the case with an ease that comes as something of a disappointment to him. He puts together a case to clear George’s name and he eventually secures for him a pardon (although, sadly, without compensation).

Barnes writes in a prose style that is both elegant and gently humorous. Meticulously researched, historical fact and fiction are woven together seamlessly. The issues raised by the book, particularly that of the insidious effects of racial prejudice on the course of justice, are certainly of contemporary importance.

Above all, though, Arthur & George is simply an example of storytelling at its best.
In the same section Daphne Lee reviews Zadie Smith's On Beauty and judges it to be an undemanding read, and one which will leave you wanting more; and Eddin Khoo pays moving tribute to Dollah Baju Merah.

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