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Sleuthing with Conan Doyle

In his new book, Julian Barnes describes how Doyle took up an Indian's case who was unjustly persecuted.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2006 15:44 IST

As a boy, author Julian Barnes loved Sherlock Holmes, but his latest novel about Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, did not come about because of any fondness for the great fictional detective.

"I didn't come to it through Holmes at all. I was reading about the Dreyfus Case," he says, referring to the celebrated incident in which writer Emile Zola came to the aid of a French military officer wrongly accused of treason.

The Dreyfus case, Barnes would discover, had parallels to an incident in Conan Doyle's life. In both events, the authors used their celebrity status to champion the rights of wrongly accused men.

 

In his latest novel, Arthur & George, the story is more about Conan Doyle as a man of action. "It is Doyle away from his desk. It is not Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes," the British writer says. Set in Victorian-era England, Barnes' novel re-creates a crusade taken on by Conan Doyle to clear the name of George Edalji, the son of an Indian vicar accused of killing livestock near Birmingham. The novel tracks both men from their childhoods to their adult lives and is loosely based on true events.

"It is about a page or a page and half in the average Doyle biography. So, Doylians know about it. But though it was significant in setting up the court of criminal appeals in Britain, even lawyers don't know about this," Barnes says in an interview with The Associated Press while on a tour of the United States to promote his latest novel.

The London based author's latest work has been lauded by mystery author P.D. James who sees the Arthur & George as part biography, part social history mingled with the excitement of a detective story. "It is a very carefully researched book. He has this ability to make us feel we are in Victorian England," James said in an interview from her home in London.

Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Arthur & George has a first printing of 100,000. It briefly hit The New York Times best seller list and was shortlisted for England's prestigious The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Barnes' 1984 novel, Flaubert's Parrot, was also short-listed for the Booker. Flaubert's Parrot was the most successful of Barnes nine books until now. Flaubert's Parrot had paperback sales of 63,000 and hardcover sales of over 20,000.

In New York, on the first leg of an eight city book tour, Barnes wears a sport coat over a blue buttoned shirt and sips a glass of water while being interviewed in a meeting room at The Warwick New York hotel. The room, with its long, lacquered table, is appropriately called the "Westminster," but is more suitable for a corporate meeting than for promoting a book.

Barnes leans back in his chair before the conference table and notes that while the Dreyfus case identified fault lines in French society - notably anti-Semitism, politics, patriotism _ Britain's Edalji case has been largely forgotten. "The British are very good about forgetting the fault lines," he said.

Meanwhile, he writes that France "was a country of extremes, of violent opinion, violent principles and long memories. ... England was a quieter place, just as principled, but less on making a fuss about its principles. This has happened, now let us forget about it and carry on as before: such was the English way." The half-caste Edalji is accused of mutilating cattle in the English countryside. Because of his Indian father - his mother was Scottish - Edalji appears to be the ideal suspect. In this Victorian era, he is considered foreign. Edalji is convicted of the crime and sentenced. His case catches the attention of Conan Doyle who then sets out to not only clear Edalji's name but to find the real villains.

"People were constantly writing to him (Doyle) with their problems. People thought he could solve their mysteries," said Les Klinger, editor of a series of annotated works by Conan Doyle. "This case appealed to his sense of miscarriage of justice and righting it."

While Conan Doyle believed that Edalji was the victim of bigoted police, Edalji himself did not see it as an issue of color, something that made the story all the more interesting for Barnes. "The idea of a victim who can't understand why he is persecuted or doesn't see why he is being persecuted, I think, is fascinating," the author says.

Barnes is careful not to offer his own conclusions about Edalji's innocence or the question of prejudice among the police officers involved in the case, preferring instead to let readers reach their own conclusions.

"You don't write a book to change people's minds. You write novels to make people feel, think, dream in their own way," he says. "At the moment, obviously, we as societies are having to think, quite rightly, about what our assumptions are about people who are a different colour from us."

Barnes' research involved reading about Conan Doyle and relying on tour guides to evoke certain settings for the story. Conan Doyle is said to have come up with endings for his complex whodunits before writing them and Barnes recalls using a similar approach. "I am not a writer that does research and then writes. I want to know where the book is going," says Barnes, who sits behind his IBM electric typewriter at 10 a.m. and works until about 1 p.m. Barnes, who has written four detective novels under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanaugh, says that writing Arthur & George called for a more intense level of concentration to maintain the story's thrillerlike pacing. And while he was a fan of Holmes as a young boy, he made no hidden references to the great detective or any of his adventures in Arthur & George.

"I very much didn't want it to be a book where Sherlockians would recognize a reference to The Case of the Missing Water Jug," he quips. "I didn't want it to be the sort of wink-giving, nudge-giving where Sherlockians would catch references." Conan Doyle is depicted in the novel as an avid cricket fan, a golfer, a champion of fair play and even dabbling in spiritualism. Although Barnes tries hard not to make any hidden inferences to the great detective from 221 B Baker Street, the playful interaction between Conan Doyle and the author's butler, Woodie, bears a strong likeness to the interplay between Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson.

And while the case involving Edalji may have occurred over a century ago, Barnes found that debate about the Indian vicar's son still crops up as the author found in a meeting with a police officer who has tracked the case.

While the officer agreed that evidence used in the case was faulty, he saw Edalji as a "super intelligent" type of criminal embarking on "an economic crime" aimed at hurting the livelihood of farmers.

The cop's verdict?

"Guilty as hell," Barnes recalls.