Bumps in the night

Arthur and George

Julian Barnes <em>Jonathan Cape, 360p, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0224077031

In the summer of 1903, the inhabitants of Great Wyrley, a farming village a day's walk north of Walsall in Stafford- shire, were listening out for bumps in the night. Someone had been slitting the bellies of horses, cows and sheep. A pit pony had bled to death. It was recreational slaughter, and people wanted a swift arrest.

The police went after a 27-year-old solicitor, son of the local vicar and a bronze medallist from the Birmingham Law Society, who had written a solid tract on railway law. These might not have struck the authorities as the tell-tale characteristics of a bloodthirsty horse-maimer had he not also been half Indian. He was called George Edalji, and his father was from Bombay, born a Parsee, and married to a British woman. Edalji had previously complained to the police about some threatening letters. The officers had come to the patriotic conclusion that he had written them himself.

They followed the same strategy this time. Various everyday items - a damp coat, footprints, razor blades found in the Edalji household - were polished up and presented as evidence. Edalji was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude.

To the police's great inconvenience, the horse maimings did not stop, and there was a public clamour for Edalji's release: petitions, articles and letters to newspapers. Then Britain's favourite author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, appointed himself Edalji's champion. The man had been released after three years, so justice, of a sort, had been done. But injustice had not been undone, and in 1907, in the Daily Telegraph and then in a short book, Doyle demanded serious compensation.

It is a true story, and a great one: a classic post-Victorian miscarriage of justice with a racist/imperialist undertow. One can see why it snagged the interest of Doyle: it permitted him to play Holmes in a virtuous investigation of his own. And now, on the centenary of Edalji's incarceration, it has attracted another distinguished writer. Julian Barnes's new novel is a careful and predictably astute retelling of the story, a double biography that describes the strange convergence of these very dissimilar figures as expressive of the capricious destinies that buffet our lives.

He is back, in other words, on the fertile territory he explored in Flaubert's Parrot, a delicious adventure in reading, writing and truth-telling. Once again he is able to squint at documents, annotating and glossing as he goes. It is a task to which he is more than equal. He is an expert reviewer: he notices things. The result is an engaging work that will almost certainly trouble the judges at the autumn show.

Consulting my notes, as Watson would say, I see that Barnes has made intriguing use of his source material. Doyle's own account of the affair, published as The Story of George Edalji in 1907, has proved especially fruitful. Here is Doyle's original description of the time the men met: "I recognised my man by his dark face, so I stood and observed him. He held the paper close to his eyes and rather sideways, proving not only a high degree of myopia but also astigmatism."

Barnes reiterates both the observation and the inference, though this time Doyle's appointment with Edalji is in the present tense. "It is not difficult to spot his waiting guest," Barnes tells us. "The only brown face is sitting about twelve feet away . . . He holds the paper preternaturally close, and also a touch sideways. Myopia, possibly of quite a high degree. And who knows, perhaps a touch of astigmatism, too."

It is curious how Barnes's Doyle is more tentative, more of a fusspot, than the man himself. He is given gentle archaisms and circumlocutions designed to suggest the fin de siecle atmosphere ("preternatur-ally . . . a touch . . . possibly of quite") that are entirely absent from the original text.

As so often, what we take to be period detail is merely rhetorical distancing, to create a sense of antiquity where none exists. Doyle himself was wedded to simplicity and clarity of expression. Barnes renders him in more modish modern dress: as a hesitant, gloomy and often uncertain figure.

This is not a criticism: Arthur and George is as sprightly and acute a biography of Doyle, and as touching a sketch of the persecuted Edalji, as anyone would wish for. Their unusual pas de deux is cunningly balanced. Both tussle with the clashing demands of faith and reason. Doyle's reverence for the latter is mixed with a sentimentalist's faith in the occult and a fantasist's self-regard; Edalji's simpler faith is edged by sober rational streaks. We have to be grateful for Barnes's steady subtlety here. It would have been easy to present Doyle's confident empiricism as superior to Edalji's credulity, but Barnes appreciates that it is not more advanced, merely more advantaged (Stonyhurst College, medicine at Edinburgh).

If anything, the surprise is that the novel is not more slippery and evasive. Much of it is straight courtroom drama, and Barnes handles it so neatly that the climax is almost a disappointment. History won't let us collar the real villain of the Great Wyrley Mystery, but the urgent momentum of Barnes's crime story leaves us feeling almost cheated by the absence of a culprit. We can bet our lives that Holmes would have caught him red-handed.

Barnes makes less of this - the extent to which life is only a diluted version of literature - than we might have expected. The man who had such sharp fun failing to cage Flaubert's parrot could have pecked at the art-life conversation in this story more greedily. But Barnes has sure, experienced feet. He sensibly allows himself to be guided by the straightforwardness of the author in whose footsteps he treads. It would have been maddening to have replayed this story merely for the sake of a routine, we-shall-never-know anticlimax.

From a narrative point of view, the mildest part is the beginning, when the two men's early lives are narrated with a portentous sense of fates gathering overhead. Both men are handed primal scenes (encounters with corpses; humiliating scuffles with the police) that define their characters and their careers. We can see stagehands moving the scenery, and actors getting into make-up. The show doesn't start until a shadow slides through the fields, slitting the throats of dumb animals. From that point on you don't want it to stop. Hurry, Watson. There's not a moment to waste!

Robert Winder's most recent book is Bloody Foreigners (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 11 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The ghost at Gleneagles