The unlikely duo in the title of Julian Barnes’s novel are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, a mixed-race son of a vicar who becomes the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Barnes follows each of them from their beginnings in life until the point at which circumstances conspire to throw them together.
Sir Arthur’s life story is better known, but Barnes goes all the way back to the beginning when Arthur, son of a wastrel, resolves to make a success of himself in order to give his mother the things she deserves. After years of diligent work to become a physician, he finds himself with few patients and plenty of time on his hands. Time he uses to write historical novels and eventually, the detective stories which made him a household name.
Edalji, meanwhile, grows up in a country vicarage, an outsider both by disposition and because of his race. Many of the residents of the village seem unhappy to have an Indian vicar and thus the family is often subject to malicious pranks and hoaxes. Threatening letters arrive in the mail, and when the vicar asks the police to investigate they laugh him off. Years later, after George has become a solicitor, a series of animal mutilations break out in the village and these same police, with little evidence to back them, target George Edalji as their main suspect. He is tried, convicted, and serves three years in jail before his release. Prevented from resuming his work as a solicitor, Edalji works to secure a pardon.
Fortuitously for him, his plight attracts the attention of Sir Arthur, who throws the full weight of his name and reputation behind Edalji and even investigates the case himself. For the writer it’s a welcome distraction from the death of his first wife and something to occupy him until the appropriate time passes and he can marry the woman who’s been patiently waiting to become his second wife. Nevertheless, his commitment to Edalji is sincere, as is his anger at the government’s indifference to the injustice it has perpetrated.
Barnes’s version of these historical events is so finely detailed that it feels essentially true, even where he is forced to invent for lack of a historical record. In his hands both the famous writer and the briefly infamous solicitor are fully realized human beings. Through artistic license he has managed to write what feels like the definitive account of this fascinating incident.