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The case of the innocent man

Arthur & George A Novel Julian Barnes Alfred A. Knopf: 388 pp., $24.95

January 15, 2006|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

THESE days, the formidable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) suffers the curious fate of being less famous than his fictional creation Sherlock Holmes. This, however, was not always so. Although Doyle did indeed first gain fame as the author of those remarkable detective stories, in his lifetime he was also well known as a man of many parts, as is evident in the account of his memorial service given in Julian Barnes' carefully researched and marvelously insightful new novel, "Arthur & George":

"Many people knew Doyle the writer, Doyle the dramatist, Doyle the traveller, Doyle the boxer, Doyle the cricketer.... But greater than any of these was the Doyle who pleaded for justice when the innocent were made to suffer."

Not content with creating a fictional hero who doggedly pursued truth whatever the cost, Doyle himself took on the role of detective -- and prisoners' advocate -- in two criminal cases to ferret out the truth and redress grave miscarriages of justice. The first, which Barnes' novel centers on, was the Edalji case, which, in the early 1900s, was as renowned in Britain as the Dreyfus affair was in France a decade earlier. The victim of injustice was a quiet, self-effacing Birmingham solicitor named George Edalji, son of a gentle Scotswoman and a devoutly religious Church of England clergyman who was Indian. As in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a military officer who was Jewish, prejudice was a major issue. Both men were accused of crimes they had not committed. Both were victims of plots to frame them. And in both cases, two innocent men served time in prison not because of what they were accused of doing but because of who they were. Yet Edalji, like Dreyfus, was so thoroughly a loyal citizen of his country that he found it almost impossible to believe his race had been an issue.

Even before Doyle took up his cause in 1906, Edalji had his supporters. He had been released from prison that year after serving three years of a seven-year sentence but was living under a cloud because there had been no pardon or any kind of admission that he had been wrongly convicted. It was at this point that the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes entered the fray. Having read the case dossier and met with Edalji in person, Doyle came to a firm conclusion. Barnes' rendition of this crucial moment in both men's lives movingly encapsulates a theme that resounds throughout this novel:

"They had stood to say good-bye, and Sir Arthur had towered over him, and this large, forceful, gentle man had looked him in the eye and said, 'I do not think you are innocent. I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent.' The words were more than a poem, more than a prayer, they were the expression of a truth against which lies would break."

Barnes is superbly equipped to handle the challenging task he has set himself in his latest novel. The range of his previous work is impressive, including the engaging contemporary comedy of his debut novel, "Metroland," and the highly original blend of fiction and literary criticism in "Flaubert's Parrot."

"Arthur & George" is an ambitious undertaking: a portrait of two lives, a window on an era and an urgent, eternally relevant tale about human verities. Barnes gives us not just an absorbing fictional re-creation of a real-life detective story but also an affirmation and celebration of the search for truth and justice. His book is a finely evocative historical novel as well as a morally and psychologically astute glimpse into the worlds of two men. He tells the story chronologically, interweaving scenes from each man's childhood, youth and adult life, leading up to the moment of their meeting, then onward to Doyle's death in 1930 and Edalji's in 1953.

Although blessed with a keen sense of irony, Barnes never makes the mistake of patronizing his characters or condescending to the mores of an earlier era. Raised on stirring tales of knightly chivalry told him by his mother, Doyle is imbued with noble ideals for the remainder of his life and is deeply convinced of his mother's wisdom -- he continues to confide in her, even at the age of 38, when he falls in love with a woman who is not his wife.

Barnes' delicate irony cuts two ways: at Doyle, for not realizing that his mother is less than perfect, but even more at our own era for smugly reducing a rather wonderful parent-child relationship to "the Oedipus complex." In his portrait of Edalji, a clever, timorous fellow dedicated to his legal studies, Barnes shows us how prejudice against nearsighted, unathletic nerds may well have played as large a part in convicting him as did prejudice against skin color. Somehow, Edalji's very virtues come to be held against him as evidence of an "unmanly" character and a "devious" mind.

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