Julian Barnes’s 2005 historical novel Arthur & George introduces Arthur Conan Doyle as a real life detective after the example of his own creation.
Conan Doyle and George Edalji (prounced Ay-dl-ji), a Birmingham solicitor, might easily never have met, but Conan Doyle’s intercession in Edalji’s case exonerated him and freed him from prison, exposing the need in Britain for the creation of a court of appeal. In Barnes’s hands, this Booker short-listed novel is both a turn-of-the-century adventure tale and a quintessentially 20th century work, one that skillfully draws the events of the past through the eye of the present, tracking two vastly different lives as their paths intersect and leave a mark.
In the following excerpt, Arthur meets the man who will inspire him to create Sheridan Hope – Sherringford Holmes? – ah, yes, Sherlock Holmes:
He liked to tell how he had been taught the importance of careful looking at the Edinburgh Infirmary. A surgeon there, Joseph Bell, had taken a shine to this large, enthusiastic youth and made Arthur his out-patient clerk. His job was to muster the patients, take preliminary notes, and then lead them to Mr. Bell’s room, where the surgeon would be sitting among his dressers. Bell would greet each patient, take preliminary notes, and then lead them to Mr. Bell’s room, where the surgeon would be sitting among his dressers. Bell would greet each patient, and from a silent yet intense scrutiny try to deduce as much as possible about their lives and proclivities. He would declare that this man was by trade a French polisher, that one a left-handed cobbler, to the amazement of those present, not least of the patient himself. Arthur remembered the following exchange:
“Well, my man, you’ve served in the army.”
“Not long discharged?”
“A Highland regiment?”
“Stationed at Barbados?”
It was a trick, yet it was a true trick; mysterious at first, simple when explained.
“You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he long been discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his constraint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.”
Image: Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and Nottingham Playhouse co-production of David Edgar’s Arthur & George