This novel is based on a real series of events which themselves seem as strange as any fiction concocted by Sherlock Holmes. The first two-thirds of the book give us, in alternating chapters, parallel biographies, with no contact between them whatever, of the two very different men, the stolid solicitor George Edalji and the bluff Arthur Conan Doyle. We have here a most subtle examination of the development of two very different personalities, and an imaginative capacity to enter into their minds. There is a degree of sensitivity in Barnes' writing which we do not find in Conan Doyle's. One is gripped by the psychological tensions under which each of these men labour: Arthur as he wrestled with his sense of honour towards his gentle ailing wife but also towards the woman with whom he was in love and who loved him; George as he struggled with the fate as it was enmeshing him. (Brilliant as Barnes' verbal picture of the two men is, it is, I think, a pity that the book does not include photographs of them. The ones I have seen on the Internet are in themselves eloquent of the differences between the two men - the one the haunted face of a half-Indian, the other Elgaresque in its Englishness.)
In 1903 George was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for crimes he had not committed. The way he coped with imprisonment is surely unusual, but I found it convincing. After a campaign of petitioning from his friends, the Home Office came to the conclusion that the length of the sentence had been excessive and he was released after three years, but without his name being cleared. George and his friends continued to campaign to have his name cleared; and it was at this stage, two thirds through the book, that Arthur took up George's case. A criticism I have of the book is that there is no satisfactory explanation why he should take up this particular case: the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had, to his irritation, often been asked to help solve a crime, and it is said that up to this time he had regularly declined. The account of their discussion at their first meeting may be based on documentation, but I don't find it at all convincing - odd, since nowhere else does Barnes' dialogue fail in this way.
I have also to say that from that moment onwards, the psychological tension of the novel rather fades away and a detective story takes over, as Arthur acts in a Sherlock Holmes-like way to clear George and to identify the real perpetrator of the crimes. Thanks to Arthur's campaign, the Home Office eventually had to give a free pardon (there was as yet no Court of Appeal, and the Edalji case contributed greatly to such a court being set up later in 1907); but did it in a thoroughly weasly way: ensuring that no one was actually blamed for the miscarriage of justice (except, by implication, George himself!), refusing to pay him compensation, and failing also to take any notice of Arthur's identification of the true criminals leads. All this leads to a let-down towards the end of the book which as a novelist Julian Barnes would surely have liked to avoid but which was forced upon him by the historical facts of the case. The novel does not deal with the anti-climax of the next five years or so, during which Arthur failed to get Captain Anson, the prejudiced Chief Constable of Staffordshire, to pursue the true criminals. Instead, Barnes counteracts this feeling of let-down with a short, spine-tinglingly written final section about the memorial meeting for Conan Doyle (it took the form of a spiritualist s ance in the presence of over a thousand people in the Albert Hall), a quarter of a century after Arthur and George had last met. And on the last two pages of the book there are two unexpected twists to the story.
All this is set against the carefully researched social and political conditions of the period and an understanding of Victorian-Edwardian mores and mind-sets. The whole book, written in a beautifully limpid style, is a magnificent blend of scholarship and imagination. One really cares about the two protagonists as people and, as the story develops, one is kept on tenterhooks as one is by a good thriller. A real treat of a book.