Book Review: “Arthur and George” by Julian Barnes

December 30, 2009

A random pick from my shelf dropped me in the English West Midlands at the turn of the 19th century. A mystery based on real events set during the senescence of Victorian ideals, starring the real human Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Arthur & George” combines literary suspense with the themes of slowly declining empire. It explores what it means to be English at a time when what it means to be English is changing faster than it has ever done so before; it glances at the accelerating evolution of change in the time of full-steam-ahead Edwardian idealism. No longer is it exactly all right for a gentleman to express bald racism, instead a more insidious cousin allows for unfounded parlor and cigar chats, couched in pseudo-science, about the biological reason for Parsi ‘blood lust.’

This is important, because George, our much-suffering protagonist, is the son of a Parsi vicar and his Scottish wife. Successful, but unremarkable and socially stunted Birmingham lawyer George Edalji is accused of bizarre and gruesome crimes against livestock in what seems, at best, a farcical miscarriage of police investigation. Outrage upon outrage ensues. Injustice reigns. The identity of the true perpetrator remains elusive and provides a mysterious background tension.

Doyle steps in and intertwines his own slightly-fictionalized biography with Edalji’s. The novel shifts gears from a frenetic charge of clues and evidence to one more introspective. We learn of Doyle’s complexes and conflicts. It is here that Barnes loses a bit of steam. While the reader champs at the bit to learn more about George and what really happened to George, we are instead derailed (to use a pervasive railroad symbolism in the book) into a yearning, self-exploratory quietness.

This, while arguably more literary, is a disappointment. Tensions are ultimately resolved and it feels like the question that was, overall, asked, is left as an exercise for the reader.

4 stars

Related Posts

Scipio the Computer has deemed that these might be similar in content!
Wonderful games with Caslon