Arthur & George by Julian Barnes is an interesting blend of history, biography and mystery. Rich in description, Barnes is able to provide a compelling biography for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through his relationship with the George Edalji case. In doing so, Barnes creates both a tense mystery and a personal account of a historic event.
Arthur & George succeeds on many levels. It is an intricate character study, a period piece, a mystery and a biography. However, it does fall short in some areas. At times Arthur & George takes a turn into Jane Austen like territory. The incessant honor, decorum and love themes became tedious. If that’s your thing, great, but it wore thin for me.
In addition, Barnes seeks to finish off his character study and biography which detracts from the natural conclusion of the story. In other words, there’s about 30 or so pages that seem superfluous at the end of the novel. Because of this, it took nearly as long to get through those final pages as it did to get through half of the entire novel.
But there’s far more to like than not in Arthur & George.
The portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alone makes Arthur & George worthwhile. I don’t read many biographies but am thrilled when I get to learn about a historic figure in the context of a novel. Barnes does this with great elegance, giving the reader a real portrait of the famed author. In particular, Doyle’s views on religion are eye opening.
The other central figure in the story, George Edalji, allows Barnes to explore the period, from matters of race and society to industrialization and technological progress. Because George is a ‘different sort’ of person, Barnes can reveal and expose more about the time and surroundings. It’s a clever device that never feels forced.
Yet, the novel really works because of the mystery. It’s here that you’re turning the page, wondering in the back of your mind, ‘did George do it?!’ Doubting the protagonist in the story creates a pleasant friction and anxiety. You want to believe George, and for the most part you do, but somehow Barnes conjures doubt out of nothing.
Perhaps it’s the knowledge that Doyle is involved, and that a Sherlock Holmes story can be surprising. Whatever the reason, the doubt draws the reader further into the narrative. And when that part of the mystery is resolved, Barnes effortlessly transfers it toward another building climax. (I’m working hard here not to give anything away.)
Arthur & George will likely not appeal to the typical beach reading mystery lover. Instead, I recommend Arthur & George by Julian Barnes for those who enjoy history, biography and literary mysteries. Get through the over-wrought spots and you’ll find an enjoyable multi-faceted novel.