The Case of the Sore Thumb— Elementary, My Dear Watson

For years, Julian Barnes has been not quite Nabokov or W.G. Sebald. Not quite there yet? Or not quite Julian

For years, Julian Barnes has been not quite Nabokov or W.G. Sebald. Not quite there yet? Or not quite Julian Barnes? He’s been funny, chilled, sparkish, a dandyish surveyor of fiction and its tropes who often seems like a droll, finger-snapping ringmaster guiding his adroit innovations past literary statuary, picking up prizes, yet never entering into that unequivocal embrace with audiences an author might want.

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Has he been too clever for his own good? Now he appears to be on the run from his own coiled intelligence and reaching out for bonds that may seem comforting after the shock of terrorist attack, et dreary cetera. It’s depressing to see someone as intelligent (and historically alert) as Mr. Barnes rallying to good causes just because “everything has changed.” Still, in Arthur & George he yearns to mend the world of its hatreds and violence. Is this gratifying? Well, yes and no. His new novel is warmer, more humane, but still not quite Ragtime: Julian Barnes is not quite E.L. Doctorow.

George is an oddity who lacks the imagination to see how easily he will become a scapegoat. He’s the son of the vicar at Great Wyrley in the English Midlands in the 1890’s, not unusually bright, held back by short sight and oddly unaware that his school class includes names like “Sid Henshaw … Harry Charlesworth … and Wallie Sharp.” George is 16 before Mr. Barnes reveals (on page 29) that his family name is actually Edalji. Readers may hesitate over pronouncing that name, and nearly every character in the book has trouble with it. But that’s a small obstacle compared with Mr. Barnes having to concede (without quite mentioning it) that the vicar’s son (and the vicar) are of color. They’re Indian, Parsees, there in the lanes and fields of Staffordshire, sore thumbs trying to be dutiful country gentlemen.

For English audiences, there’s the subtext that this Staffordshire is the heartland Enoch Powell beheld in the 1960’s, when he prophesied a fatal tainting of blood and great troubles to follow on the reckless mix of racial tolerance and intolerance in the British Empire.

The Edaljis are persecuted. At first, the enemy seems more Lewis Carroll than fascist underclass. Mr. Barnes the antic inventor is gripped by surreal glee as strangers send bizarre but unrequested goods to the vicarage. (Will they respond by opening a new kind of shop?) But then the narration steadies with grim factual account. You see, these people existed, and poor George, having become a solicitor (second-class honors in the exams), and having written a useful pamphlet on the railways and the law, becomes the victim of an insidious but patient plot. He’s charged with cruel nocturnal attacks on ponies and cattle, and while we accept his obdurate innocence, we know his faith in English justice is misplaced. He’ll be found guilty; he’ll go to prison for seven years. Why? Because this shaming case really occurred in British history, because Mr. Barnes has rescued it with research and decisive choice. It is his authorial wish to be moved by blunt prejudice—the fear and loathing that are still inspired by dark skins, foreign names and the acquired wariness that sells confectionery, cigarettes and newspapers to the English while waiting for the worst.

Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, doctor, cricketer, traveler, journalist, writer, spiritualist and immense, if rather humorless, egotist. Mr. Barnes has fun with Doyle’s decent pomp, and there are many places where real scholarship merges happily with Mr. Barnes’ ironic regard for high learning. Yet he’s only copying history. Arthur really did come to the rescue of George: He labored to restore the poor man’s liberty, all the while demonstrating his own illustrious and benevolent stature.

The illustrious benefactor was also gently prompted by the example of George to get on with his own stalled life. Arthur had been married to Touie, a sweet and obedient wife who fell victim to slow consumption. As such, she could not offer much sexual response to Arthur’s vigorous self-satisfaction. But then Arthur met Jean—younger, sexier and so no-strings-attached available as to be a godsend to his social superiority. (Arthur was the kind of master detective in real life—and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, of course—who never fathomed how easily his shy subterfuges were noticed in 20 minutes by everyone in his self-announcing orbit.) George’s misfortune prompts Arthur to marry Jean (after Touie has departed) and gets George an invitation to the reception, one dusky face in the crowd.

There’s some effort to present George Edalji as a Parsee Midlands Dreyfus—not that his case came close to dismantling corruption and complacency in Britain in the way that Dreyfus affected all of French society. I was more forcefully reminded of the presentation of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, though Mr. Doctorow’s vaulting narrative structure leaves Mr. Barnes seeming a plodder, and Mr. Doctorow’s wrath at injustice is as violent as the crime itself. In Ragtime, in a shorter span of pages, we’re driven farther afield in world history. We have the eerie existence of Harry Houdini and—if you recall—the haunting proposal that the archduke might yet be saved from gunfire at Sarajevo in June 1914, thus rescuing humanity on the brink of the trenches. Ragtime was inspired, musical, skipping from fiction to history without missing a beat. That nimbleness afforded a rare vision of the harmony of famous and overshadowed lives caught in the same dance.

The Barnes of Flaubert’s Parrot might once have rivaled Ragtime’s jazzy daring. But this Barnes has reined himself in, all in the name of gravitas and consequences. It’s also sad that Arthur and George are such unarousing characters, dead center in a narrative structure that’s obliged to shuttle from one to the other in a steady chronological march. There’s a sense of period, but it’s the 1890’s—upholstered, sedate, assured—that we know from Masterpiece Theatre, not the society that was already starting to crack and waiting on the high explosives of 1914-18. And Mr. Barnes doesn’t see any way in which his two men are alike, or interchangeable—in the beat of ragtime, Mr. Doctorow saw how everyone might be everyone else: Identity was breaking up.

Nothing is less rewarding than the labored finale: After Conan Doyle’s death, there’s a lofty séance in the Albert Hall, at which many daft notions culminate in the murmur, “He is here!” (Arthur’s message from the grave?) There’s never a hint that Mr. Barnes believes in this magic. What his novel needs—and the same plan applies to the flat equation of George and Arthur—is a threat of the irrational, of terror taking hold. In other words, the 20th century.

What an ending there might be if Holmes himself, or Holmesian deductive lightning, were suddenly found to be crazed or wrong. But Julian Barnes dodges that moment in a book where he’s persuaded himself to sound like Dr. Watson.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf). He reviews books regularly for The Observer.

The Case of the Sore Thumb— Elementary, My Dear Watson