Stranger than any fiction

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Arthur & George

Julian Barnes

Cape, 17.99

LITERARY fashions are strange things. Last year we had a string of books with a Henry James theme; this year it's Sherlock Holmes. Michael Chabon's The Final Solution revived the famous detective a few months ago in a case involving a talking parrot; Caleb Carr's forthcoming The Italian Secretary promises to do something similar.

Between them we have Julian Barnes's delightful new novel: a puzzle that is solved not by Holmes, but by his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Most amazing of all is that it is a true story. Barnes has uncovered a forgotten episode of legal history, and has turned it into a thoroughly engrossing novel.

We begin with the alternately described childhoods of Arthur - the young Conan Doyle - and George, who is the son of an Indian clergyman and a Scottish mother, growing up in the Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley. George's father, the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, is proud of his Englishness but also keenly aware of the Victorian notion of Christian humility. When young George complains about the common manners of the farm boys and miners' sons who are his schoolmates, he gets a sharp reprimand. He must never consider himself superior.

Yet for all his meekness, the young Shapurji has enemies. A stolen key appears on his doorstep; the police immediately suspect George is up to mischief. The family receive anonymous letters, then there are hoax advertisements in the press - one claims to be for a dating agency run by the vicar. A hate campaign appears to be starting. Yet just as suddenly and mysteriously, it stops.

George qualifies as a lawyer and finds work in nearby Birmingham. His penchant for exactitude finds an outlet in a book he writes on railway law, advising commuters on what to do if they receive poor service. Julian Barnes amusingly describes George's excitement as he lectures his sister Maud on classic cases, such as a passenger too fat to fit through the second-class door who went to first-class instead.

We see a reproduction of the title page of George's book - a reminder that George really lived, and that the novel is closely based on fact. What is remarkable about Arthur & George is the seamless way in which these facts are woven into a compelling narrative.

The hate campaign resumes - "I do not know you," the poison-pen writer informs George - "and do not expect I would like you much if I did know you, as I do not like natives." Nevertheless he writes to "warn" George that the police are likely to blame him for attacks which now begin on farm animals in Great Wyrley, where George still lives with his family. Horses and cattle are slashed and have to be destroyed - letters to the police claim it to be the work of a gang of which George is leader.

GEORGE HAS A MEETING with the local police chief: there is an obvious attempt to frame him. Yet Barnes skilfully shows how George's innocence is easily undermined by police prejudice. George never contemplates the possibility that race is an issue. His aloofness and punctilious manner only serve to make things harder for him. His father's lesson about superiority masked a deeper message: submissiveness is the only way to become assimilated in Victorian England.

George's fortunes plummet further. The police decide that he is not only guilty of attacking the animals, but even wrote the anonymous letters himself. To his amazement, George finds himself arrested and put on trial - a respectable solicitor suddenly on the wrong side of the law.

Barnes has drawn on copious historical material. We get extracts from newspaper court reports describing George's "swarthy face" and his demeanour in the dock, "essentially Oriental in its stolidity". Barnes could easily have made this novel into a sledgehammer indictment of racism, but what he does is far more subtle. George's own refusal to acknowledge the prosecution as racially motivated only serves to highlight the injustice he faces. A chain of circumstantial evidence is used to prove what the police decided from the outset: George is guilty on all charges, and is sentenced to seven years' penal servitude.

His time in prison forms the most gripping section of the novel: George's humiliation and suffering make him more human. This is also presumably the part of the book in which Barnes had a less abundant historical record to go on. His faithful reproduction of so much archive material raises the question of just how much of this novel is a product of imaginative invention; but the prison section reminds us that there is far more to Arthur & George than a stringing together of facts. It may seem like the sort of story that can tell itself, but it takes someone of Barnes's ability to tell it so well.

It is following George's release that Arthur comes fully into the picture. Up until now he has formed merely a counterpoint, finding success with his Sherlock Holmes stories and entering middle age with an ailing wife and a sense of purposelessness. After being contacted by George Edalji, Conan Doyle takes up the case, recognising at once that it has been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

In the rest of the novel we follow the men's joint steps towards a solution. Inevitably there is a loss of tension after the drama of George's imprisonment; Arthur's efforts as a detective cannot be as superhuman as those of his fictional creation, and when the breakthrough finally comes it feels almost disappointing. Historical facts this time prove inconvenient from a novelistic point of view: the poison-pen letters turn out to have been coming from a source we have not been properly prepared for.

This is not really a detective story, though. Instead it is a faithful reconstruction of a case that made legal history: Conan Doyle succeeded in getting a parliamentary investigation into the affair, and a pardon for Edalji.

The Edinburgh-born Doyle considered himself an "unofficial Englishman"; but with his passion for cricket and all things English, he nevertheless knew that he had bought into an identity, just like the Edaljis. Barnes presents Doyle as a man determined to use his fame and influence as a way of stirring things up. Edalji, to some extent, serves merely as a pretext for a fight Doyle wanted to have anyway.

Though it lacks the excitement or pace of a whodunnit, Arthur & George offers other, deeper pleasures. This is a slow-burning book; one that gradually enfolds the reader in a rich sense of period and place. Barnes knows all about narrative tricks, but there are no fireworks here. Instead he gives us a most wonderful log fire: something for us to curl up comfortably beside and admire, long into the night.