Thursday, November 14, 2013

Behind Sherlock

As I mentioned last week, I’ve never really read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. I love Sherlock Holmes in all the visual incarnations, but I’ve only read The Hound of Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet. And even though especially the latter is filled with classic Holmes moments, it’s not among my favourite books.

Arthur Conan Doyle created an iconic and memorable character that can be re-invented for the modern audiences and still retain his essence. Considering the state of criminal investigation at the time he wrote the books, he was ahead of his times. A physician himself, he gave his character the analytical mind needed in detective work. Moreover, he wasn’t beyond trying detective work in his own life.

Julian Barnes: Arthur and George
The fascinating story of Conan Doyle as a detective is at the core of Julian Barnes’ book Arthur and George (2005). It’s not a historical account, it’s a novel based on the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a part biography and a part detective story. George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor from Birmingham, was wrongfully committed of a bizarre crime of farm animal slashings in 1903, the so called Great Wyrley Outrages. He was released, but not pardoned, in 1906. Conan Doyle, convinced of Edalji’s innocence set out to clear his name and after eight months of detective work managed to have Edalji exonerated. He didn’t, however, discover who was really behind the deeds, although he was convinced it was a local butcher’s boy named Royden Sharp. No one else was convicted.

As far as biographies go, even those that spring partly from the author’s imagination, Arthur and George is interesting. Two people of seemingly different worlds, though subjects of the same country, are connected by a court case and nothing else. Most of the book follows their separate lives and nothing suggests they might meet one day until they do.

Of the two, Conan Doyle gets more space. He leads the more interesting life by far and undoubtedly there have been more sources to his life too. Edalji, however, gets a more sympathetic portrayal. Not only is he wrongly accused, his entire life has been struggle against racial prejudice and malign, despite which he has managed to carve himself a place in society, albeit small. If it hadn't been for the trial, he would have been forgotten.

Arthur and George is a window to two very different sides of British culture. Those sides are not limited to the early 20th century either. They reflect the modern Britain too – a liberty Julian Barnes has been able to take writing a novel instead of historical biography. Racism and class structure, the possibilities and treatment people get because of their place in society are all themes that reflect the present day too.

Eventful though Conan Doyle’s life was, he wasn’t nearly as intriguing a character as he was able to create himself. Edalji’s tragic life would have made a fascinating book on its own, especially if Barnes had taken more liberties with filling in the unknowns. As a whole, it’s a somewhat unbalanced book, long stretches of it being about Conan Doyle. Eventually, Edalji is put aside completely, faded to obscurity once more. And in the end Conan Doyle, too, is remembered from Sherlock Holmes, not the man he helped to exonerate.

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