A Puzzle Inside a Mystery Wrapped in Coincidence


Grandma Pat’s Sherlock Holmes book

Gifting could be weird when I was growing up.  Often something my brothers mentioned wanting would wind up in my pile of loot. So the year my brother John, three years my senior, wanted a watch, he didn’t get one.  But when I unwrapped my packages, there was a slender-banded little watch for me.  At age 6, I was just puzzled by it.  And John, I could tell, was puzzled that I got what he wanted.

Another year, my next-to-oldest-brother Michael, a voracious reader, was into Sherlock Holmes in a very big way.  I was a reader, but not, at that time, a reader of detective fiction, so that puzzled feeling cropped up again when I unwrapped a book of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work.  It was titled The Red-Headed League, and I must have stared at it in a little bit of astonishment when I held it in my hands.  (Well-brought-up children, we knew always to thank the giver immediately; I omitted that step.)

“Well?” asked my mother, grinning.  I turned my puzzled look her way.

The RED-HEADED League?” she pointed out.

Ah.  I was the youthful possessor of a mane of strawberry blonde hair–possibly more strawberry than blonde in the mix.  Michael was just plain blond.

I read the book, dutifully, a little too young for it, and I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It seemed dry, and Holmes seemed distant. Then I shared it with my brothers.  The incident left me with a little bit of discomfort with the whole concept of Sherlock Holmes.  Old black and white re-runs of Basil Rathbone films didn’t bring the books to life for me, either–I was too young to appreciate classic films, then, too.


Suddenly, many years later, I find Sherlock Holmes to be back–and to be considered trendy and compelling.  Many creators seem intrigued by the stories and called to rewrite them with a twist.  There are a couple of new print story lines, with characters quirked and alluring. There is a television series, I believe, with a female Watson.  There’s another series my son and I watch that’s set in the current time; Benedict Cumberbach makes an odd and weirdly magnetic Holmes.  Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is an infinitely sympathetic character.  Perhaps, I thought, I need to give A. Conan Doyle another try.

Thinking like this, I happened on a Julian Barnes book, Arthur and George, on the clearance shelf at my favorite used book store.

I’ve read good things about Barnes’s books, and this seemed like a good time to check him out. (Barnes has written many books; he won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and Arthur and George itself was short-listed for the award.  It also, I learned while searching in on Yahoo, inspired a recent three-part Masterpiece Theater production.)

The book is written in two distinct story lines.  Arthur and George are contemporaries growing up at the end of the Victorian era in different places and in very different circumstances.  Arthur–the future creator of Sherlock Holmes–has a drunken, ill father who eventually requires institutionalization.  Arthur is devoted to his strong, determined Scottish mother.  He excels at school, wins a scholarship, and becomes an opthamologist.  He marries a lovely woman who supports and encourages his writing; his writing quickly overtakes his doctoring.

George is the son of a Parsee minister and a Scots mother; he is a quiet, withdrawn little boy growing up in a reserved and odd household. He inadvertently makes enemies, even as a young boy, but he keeps his head down and studies hard; he becomes a solicitor.  His family is plagued by poison pen letters for much of his childhood; they stop abruptly and then begin again after George begins his first professional position.

The stories weave around each other–chapters are labeled “Arthur” and “George”, but they do not intersect until the last third of the book, when George reaches out to Conan Doyle for help in clearing his name.  The resolution of that quest (Conan Doyle whole-heartedly embraces George’s cause), and the main characters’ reactions, give me a real sense of what life was like, with its quirks and prejudices, in the England of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

This is fiction, not biography, but I was interested to read that Conan Doyle was sick unto death of his detective character and relieved to send him over those deadly falls. And I had always believed that Conan Doyle, like his protagonist, had a cocaine habit; this book asserts that is untrue.

George, isolated and quiet, does not realize until he is almost grown that there is pervasive discrimination against those of Indian origin.  Police inspectors call George and his family “Hindoos.”  His last name is repeatedly mispronounced.  He is advised not to mention that in court for fear of alienating the judge and jury.

The times are reflected too in the fascination with spiritualism, and in the advances and improvements made in British courts–some of them due to George’s case and Arthur’s championship.

I am left with some questions–what was that letter seeking funds all about?  Where did those short red hairs originate?  I read the final chapters of the book uneasily, afraid that an unexpected ending might explode the respect I’d built up for both characters.  Spoiler alert: the anxiety was unwarranted.

I enjoyed Arthur and George; I need now to research the case and the characters and see if I can determine the real story behind Barnes’ well-told tale.

But am not sure, as I finish the novel, that I am any more inclined to pick up a volume of Sherlock Holmes than I was back when I unwrapped The RedHeaded League.  I am glad to have read Barnes’ fictionalized tale of Conan Doyle and George Edalji; this background knowledge and any incidental learning that takes place will inform my viewing of the Masterpiece production.

I put the book down with a kind of satisfied, “That’s that!” feeling of being finished. I move on to Inspector Gamache.


And then, in that serendipitous, “Well, whaddaya know?” kind of happening, my mother-in-law, this weekend, gifted my son with a little volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, reprinted in 1941. He held the fragile little book in his big hand, wondering at its age–and at the concept of Grandma as a seven-year-old girl.  (Hmmm. Maybe I AM called to read a little more Holmes-stuff.)

And last night I plucked a slender volume called The Book of Kehls (Christine Kehl O’Hagan) from the shelf. It was billed as a “…gripping, don’t you dare give up, memoir…” and I thought it sounded like an acerbic, real-life palate cleanser after a few weeks’ steady diet of sweet fiction.  I’ll tell you more about that little book in another post, but I was jarred a little on page 40.

There, I read this, ” Staring at me over the top of his tortoise-shell eyeglasses, through a cloud of sweet smoke, Pops said I should read Sherlock Holmes when I grew up. ‘Your Ma’s a Doyle,’ he said, ‘and so are you. We’re direct descendants of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.'” O’Hagan doesn’t seem convinced that’s her true ancestry, but it’s a funny thing that when you start bearing down on a subject in one part of your garden, it sends out shoots all over the place.

It’s seems almost like Conan Doyle is dogging me, just a little bit. I guess I may be heading Holmes in the future, after all…


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