‘The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Foreigner in the English Village’ review: When the creator of Sherlock Holmes stepped in to solve a real-life case

The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer is a title that seems straight out of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Not surprising that the author of that series plays a starring role in this real-life whodunnit.

The case is about the wrongful conviction of George Edalji, a barrister from Great Wyrley, a mining town near Birmingham, England, and how Arthur Conan Doyle helped clear his name. But the background to this is fascinating. George’s father, Shahpur Edalji, a Parsi convert to Christianity was appointed as the vicar of Great Wyrley, the first South Asian to do so in Britain in 1876. Edalji senior was also married to Charlotte Stoneham, an Englishwoman, and the family had to face discrimination all their life.

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Racial discrimination

Shahpur and Charlotte’s eldest son George is the only boy in his school to look different from his classmates. Despite being socially awkward, he is a clever student and becomes a successful lawyer. In 1903, a case of animal mutilation broke out in the village and George was arrested and convicted for the crime because, as his mother puts it, “there is among many people a prejudice against those who are not English, and I cannot help feeling that it is owing to that prejudice that my son has been falsely accused.” To help establish his innocence, George approaches the creator of the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle.

While the author was used to receiving many such letters, “there was an urgency about the appeal, a need for justice to be done and seen to be done... A strong defender of the Empire, Conan Doyle would now be drawn into championing the cause of one who had been wronged by the racist attitudes of the establishment. For him, it was imperative to ensure that English justice prevailed.”

A parallel investigation

Basu quotes from Conan Doyle’s account of his first meeting with George Edalji: “I recognized my man by his dark face... he held the paper close to his eyes and rather sideways, proving not only a high degree of myopia, but marked astigmatism. The idea of such a man scouring fields at night and assaulting cattle while avoiding the police was ludicrous.” These lines recall Sherlock Holmes’ dictum of close observation. Convinced of his man’s innocence, Conan Doyle launched his own investigation.

In the Introduction, Basu gives an account of how she came to write this book and the chance that led her to the letters written by Conan Doyle to Chief Inspector G.A. Anson, head of the Staffordshire police. Basu opens with her journey to Great Wyrley and brings a vivid picture of the church, the vicarage and the grounds where Shahpur Edalji is buried. Right in the first chapter, the reader is thrown into the case, so to speak.

Quite ‘elementary’

Basu opens with an account of the animal mutilation case that plagued Great Wyrley and then introduces her dramatis personae. She traces Shahpur Edalji’s journey from Bombay, where he was born, to being the vicar of an English town and his marriage to Charlotte Stoneham. Basu also tracks in parallel the turmoil in Conan Doyle’s personal life and how fighting George’s case helped him.

The wealth of detail found in the narrative doesn’t really hamper the reading. The past is recreated in great detail and Basu’s writing makes one feel like a witness to the events. The chapter titled ‘Elementary’ sets out how Conan Doyle breaks down the police case and is a fascinating read.

Though this case led to judicial reform and the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal, the underlying issues of racism and its impact on policing are still issues that the world at large is dealing with more than a century later.

The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Foreigner in the English Village; Shrabani Basu, Bloomsbury, ₹699.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 4:34:17 AM |

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