British author Barnes’s deeply satisfying tenth novel, based on a turn-of-the-century cause célèbre.
In 1906, Arthur Conan Doyle, the renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes, was roused to passionate indignation on behalf of a sedentary—and extremely near-sighted—lawyer named George Edalji, who was disbarred and imprisoned after being convicted of mutilating farm animals. Doyle’s investigations—which lifted him out of the despondency occasioned by the death of his first wife—confirmed that the Edalji family had long been a target of police persecution. Doyle’s widely read articles and petition to the Home Secretary offered new evidence of Edalji’s innocence and suggested the identity of the actual criminal, resulting in the overturning of Edalji’s conviction, his re-admission to the bar and the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. As enthralling as Barnes’s fictionalized account of these events is, with its satisfyingly morbid Victorian elements—the anonymous threats reprinted here verbatim, the dead birds strewn on the Edaljis’ lawn, the vicar’s odd practice of locking his son in his bedroom every night well into adulthood—detection is only one component of the novel. The author also respectfully narrates the parallel lives of two Victorian gentlemen: George Edalji, whose Apollonian downfall was to trust too much in the rationality of his fellow citizens; and Arthur Conan Doyle, who, when logic took him only so far, made the great Dionysian leap into spiritualism. Like his favorite writer, Flaubert, Barnes is a connoisseur of middle-class normalcy, which he chronicles with loving attention to the peculiarities of bourgeois life subsumed under its sheltering cloak of good order. His past novels have been praised for their brilliance but occasionally faulted for a dry style overburdened with detail. Here, with a mystery at the heart of the narrative, every detail is a potential, welcome clue. The precision of the style suits the decorum of the period and serves to underline the warm, impulsive generosity of Doyle’s support, which saved an innocent man from ruin.