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Arthur & George

by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is again, as he did with Flaubertís Parrot, playing with literary and historical detection, but this time he investigates the life of crime writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, and, specifically, a time when the author stepped into the role of his most famous creation.

The story is told alternately from the point of view of Arthur and that of George, the son of a rural vicar in Staffordshire. Both men were born at the end of the nineteenth century, yet they are opposites in many ways. Arthur is an Alpha male: large; athletic; privileged; clever and determined to excel. Whereas George is short, myopic, poor, friendless and, although bright, lacks confidence or any charisma. Arthur sails through life achieving everything that is expected of him, academically and in the many sports that he takes up, makes a good marriage and is blessed with children. Whereas George plods along, alone, overcoming many barriers to achieve his modest ambition of becoming a local solicitor. Arthur becomes famous for his detective novels while George publishes a pamphlet that advises on the vagaries of railway law. Their very different histories come together when George is accused and then convicted of a series of sadistic mutilations of local farm animals.

Arthur Conan Doyle was often called upon to solve mysteries but this was the only time he agreed to take on the mantle of Sherlock Holmes. Georgeís conviction was a clear, and infamous, miscarriage of justice and Arthur is dogged in trying to get to the truth behind it.

In his imaginative fictionalisation of this episode, Barnes reveals the ugly underbelly of Edwardian England: a country which is so complacent in the rectitude of its establishment that it is prepared to ignore systemic corruption, hypocrisy and racism.

ARTHUR & GEORGE is written in a formal, occasionally verbose, style, appropriate to the era, but it builds into a rattling narrative in the manner of a Sherlock Holmes book. At the same time itís a very engaging meditation on the messy boundaries between fact and fiction.

Comments


Roger Oldfield
It's certainly a very fine novel. As an expert on the Edalji family, though, I spent the whole time thinking about the extent to which it reflects the historical record. There are points at which it departs deliberately from actual events, and there are points at which there are (I think) unwitting distortions and mistakes. For a critique of the book in these terms see my 'Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes', Vanguard Press. The book is the first to set the case of George Edalji in the wider context of the experiences of the Edalji family as a whole, a subject which Julian Barnes did not research in detail. See www.outrage-rogeroldfield.co.uk. George Edalji, incidentally, was found guilty of perpterating only one of the 'Wyrley Outrages' of 1903, the eighth one.




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