At the beginning of the last century, a half-Indian, half-Scottish solicitor in provincial England was tried and convicted for the unlikely crime of mutilating a pony.
This book reads more as a biography in which the principal characters, Arthur and George, are brought to life to paint a pivotal event in which their lives intersected.
The novel swings between long chapters on either Arthur or George, with some minor characters intervening to provide relief. Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George is George Edalji, the lawyer son of a Parsee vicar and a Scottish mother. Their stories converge late into the book when Arthur takes on George’s case, a case which exposes the ills of racism that plagued Victorian and Edwardian England.
Despite his mixed racial origins, George considers himself an Englishman, and so does Arthur whose roots are Irish and Scottish. They differ on religion with George being the pious and meek one and Arthur being the scientific type whose belief extends to the paranormal. While Arthur enjoys fame and fortune, George is subjected to a poison letter campaign, is accused of mutilating farm animals in his village and is sent to prison for three years on trumped up evidence. Arthur too, despite his better circumstances, lives in an emotional and sexual prison as his first wife Touie is suffering from consumption and is unable to perform her wifely duties. He is madly in love with the younger Jean, but has to keep the affair chaste and secret out of respect for his ailing wife. When Touie finally succumbs to her illness, a depressed Arthur looks for a cause to fire himself up and finds the George Edalji case befitting of a Sherlock Holmes type investigation.
Reality mirrors fiction as Arthur and his assistant Wood play Holmes and Watson in re-opening the cold case (for by now, George has served his time and been released but is living with a criminal record which bars him from returning to his trade). Their Holmesian deductions and tampering with evidence jeopardizes the case and allows the Home Office to maintain that George deserved his “time” but is also eligible for a pardon – in Arthur’s irate words, “The great British solution has been applied. Something terrible has happened but nobody has done anything wrong. Nothing shall be anybody’s fault, and especially not ours.”
The author concludes that much of the material contained in this book is factual, which left me wondering whether I would have had the patience to read this book if it had been about two unknown individuals and if I had not been such a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Probably not, for the style is biographical, especially Arthur’s segment, and the conclusion at the séance for the late Sir Arthur is anti-climactic and therefore the book does not come across as a novel, as it is claimed to be. And yet the prejudices, behaviour and practices of turn-of-the-last century England have been brought vividly to life by a writer who has obviously immersed himself in the history of that period and painstakingly drawn it with all its grace and imperfections.