ARTHUR & GEORGE by Julian Barnes (Random House), 390 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was always sniffing out clues, but his fictional detective wound up dogging Conan Doyle in ways the author couldn't bear. He even tried killing him off, but his fans wouldn't tolerate it and he had to revive him.
Conan Doyle's difficulty grappling with his own and his sleuth's celebrity is one of the themes of Julian Barnes's gentle historical fiction, Arthur & George. The crime writer's attempts to change the status quo were often subverted by critics who claimed he was an expert in fantasy what he wrote about police work was nothing like the real thing.
Yet his championing of the cause of George Edalji, a brown-skinned solicitor wrongly convicted of a series of animal mutilations, not only proved successful even if it didn't result in Edalji getting monetary compensation but also resulted in the establishment of the UK's Court of Criminal Appeal.
Barnes tracks this series of true-life events, deploying meticulous research; history hounds will love this part of it. But the real strength of the book is Barnes's evocation of two very different characters. Edalji is a reserved, retiring young man who lives with his parents in the country vicarage, the seat of his father's pulpit, has small ambitions and worries less about his reputation than about what his conviction has done to his ability to make a living.
Conan Doyle, on the other hand, is larger than life, a worldly figure, renowned sportsman, knighted author of the most popular books of his day and very conscious of his public profile.
The book begins with alternating chapters on the very different backgrounds of both men (for a while, we don't even know it's the famous Doyle we're reading about), delving briefly into Conan Doyle's passionate but chaste extramarital relationship. When the narrative gets to the circumstances leading to Edalji's arrest and conviction and the author's attempts to overturn the verdict, the story takes off.
Too bad it loses steam toward the end, when Barnes goes into Conan Doyle's fascination with spiritism and seances. Doubtless, Barnes felt he couldn't do his hero justice without addressing this major preoccupation. But it makes for an anticlimactic finish.