Julian Barnes recounts the tale of the real-life Great Wyrley Outrages – where a small town outside Birmingham saw a number of animals gorily murdered and the blame fall at the door of the mild-mannered son of the parson, George Edalji, until Arthur Conan Doyle himself became involved in the case. Two men of very different temperaments and extremely different backgrounds, Arthur and George are quietly but significantly bound together by this mystery.
Coming to this novel without having read any Barnes before, I was slightly apprehensive of finding this unlikely partnership to be a Holmes and Watson double act, and was relieved that this is an entirely different kind of a novel. Meticulously researched, it instead traces how the lives of both men brought them to meeting in such bizarre circumstances, and the unlikely but important effects that they have on one another’s life. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be frustrated, as Barnes skims lightly over any mention of Doyle’s writing him, apart from to acknowledge his growing antipathy towards his most famous creation.
Doyle is desperate to be the champion of somebody other than his detective, whom he cannot kill off, whether that is his mother, his wife, his lover or poor George Edalji. For his part, George merely wants the world to be a much simpler, more comprehensible place than it is. A stickler for the law and a lover of railway timetables, the atmosphere of quiet racism and official prejudice that he encounters is more perplexing than intimidating.
The novel has a lot to say about Englishness – both what Doyle and Edalji’s notions of it are, and how it is at odds with the England they find themselves pitted against at various stages of their lives. However, the thing I liked most about it was its picture of two very different lives, almost taken at an arbitrary cross-section, and showing the ways two men try to make them mean something. If it is a little slow-moving in parts, thanks to the subject matter and also to the painstaking research that Barnes has obviously done to recreate a faithful portrait of 19th century England, then I found the end an exceptionally moving coda to that stately pace throughout. Sometimes the distanced narrative can feel a little forced – moments of crisis seem to be met with the same steadfast observation as more mundane affairs – but perhaps this is just as truthful a recognition of the way that people often don’t react as they would in a novel – moments of tragedy creep up on us when we are unprepared to recognise them until later.
But there is something about this tone, and Barnes’s extensive research, that made me find it hard to love this book, however much I liked it.