It is a common complaint of editors when they see a first draft of a manuscript to tell the author that he started the novel too early and ended it too late, resulting in a book that is much too long. This book starts by discussing the first memories of the two main characters. Enough said.
This author has mistaken Conan Doyle’s technique. Sherlock Holmes noted the minutiae of what he saw; Conan Doyle related only the parts that were important to the plot. Julian Barnes gives us all the minutiae, important or not, from beginning to end. It is a wonderful demonstration of thoroughness, but not one of succinct or entertaining writing. The only thing that rescues this style is the fact that the author is so good at it. Taken a page or two at a time, the writing is beautiful. Taken in larger lumps, it palls rapidly.
A minor complaint involves his irritating habit of “head-hopping,” disorienting the reader with point-of-view switches happening sometimes paragraph by paragraph.
In the beginning the story jumps back and forth through the early lives of the two main characters. This constant change is a good literary technique, keeping our interest up in spite of the incredible amount of minor detail this author feels compelled to give us. Then in the middle of Part 2, we are assailed by the huge chunk of detail that involves the trial and imprisonment of Adalji. This is followed by a matching chunk of Conan Doyle’s life and loves, which sets us up for the meeting of the two men.
Part 3, which starts after the halfway point in the book, is called “Ending with a Beginning,” an unwitting editorial comment on how the story should have been written. Part 3 is the story of the interaction of the two men, so different in every respect. It also encompasses the details of the detective mystery. As such, it is a good tale all by itself, and I’m sure that is where the television writer saw the potential of the manuscript.
Part 4 jumps 23 years to Conan Doyle’s death, then backs up to tell everything that happened since, in a huge back-story with which every amateur writer knows one should never start a book, let alone end one, when we are expecting some kind of climax.
And then, at the end, after the detailed description of the séance that culminated Conan Doyle’s life, I suddenly realized that I had missed the whole point of the story. Like a reader of Poirot, it all had to be revealed to me in the end, because only The Writer is smart enough to Really Understand what happened. And worst of all, I had absolutely no interest in trying to find out. If you want to find a “based on fact” detective mystery, Arthur Conan Doyle is a great choice of subject. If you want to discuss the problems of belief versus reality, the quaint discredited spiritualist movement of the early twentieth century is hardly material that will strike the readership of the early twenty-first as meaningful.
My only conclusion is that a wonderfully talented writer has wasted his time and mine in creating a work of art so detailed and complicated that he completely obfuscates any chance he has of communicating his message to his readership. In the end, he is reduced to tapping us on the shoulder and informing us that we missed the point, and that we should have looked…thataway, and then we might have seen something.
A disappointing book, recommended only for the beautiful writing style. 3 stars out of 5
The Television Version:
The television series has the advantage of dealing only with the main case where these two men met, and the luxury of mostly ignoring parts 1, 2, and 4 of the novel. For various intelligent reasons, this version only starts at the point where Conan Doyle became involved in the case, with a small introduction into the writer’s life to set up his emotional state (which has considerable effect on the plotline). The plot is “tidied up” at the end to create a more satisfying conclusion to both the court case and the interpersonal conflict.
I would have to say that the main source of enjoyment in watching this three-part series is that of seeing Martin Clunes as the definitive Arthur Conan Doyle. He looks the part, he has the class and style down pat, and he plays the slightly uncomprehending Edwardian English male to perfection. Arsher Ali, as George Adalji, is also beautifully cast, although the television version is much more about Conan Doyle than Adalji, reflecting the imbalance in the acting credits of the two performers.
The television quite correctly ignores the overall theme of the book and focuses on the detective mystery, the personalities and their interactions instead, a task at which the small screen is much more adept.
A good story well acted. 4 stars out of 5.