Arthur Conan Doyle, the British creator of the world-famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, was drawn to investigate just one real-life crime during his lifetime and it involved a British Indian man wrongly accused of a series of mysterious crimes in an English village in the early 20th century.
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu, who chanced upon the mystery and pursued it through archival records and letters over the years.
The result is The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the case of the foreigner in the English village’, which is released in the UK next week and in India on March 10.
“I think Indian readers will find it interesting that in 1907 Arthur Conan Doyle responded to a letter by a young Indian lawyer appealing to him for help to clear his name, and he took up the cause,” said Basu, the author of previous historical accounts such as Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’ and Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant’.
“Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an 18-year-old student at the time in Harrow School in London, got fascinated with the case and remarked that George had no doubt been targeted because he was Indian,” she said.
The story, which revolves around several threatening letters and the distressing killing and mutilation of animals, was one of the most famous cases of miscarriage of justice in Edwardian England which was forgotten over time.
Conan Doyle, whom George Edalji had turned to for help after being jailed for crimes he did not commit, encountered a mystery worthy of his fictional detective. The Sherlock Holmes author meticulously pieced clues together to conclude that George had been the victim of racism for being a “Hindoo” as all Indians were referred to at the time.
“What fascinated me was the fact that the only true crime that Arthur Conan Doyle investigated personally was to do with an Indian. To me, it was a story that was calling out to be told. Like most people, I am a fan of the Sherlock Holmes books and love a mystery,” said Basu.
While the intriguing incident took place over 100 years ago, the scenario has resonance even in modern-day Britain. “The more I read the letters and the press coverage at the time, the more it felt that this could be happening now. Mistrust of immigrants, the fear of the foreigner, have been issues in Western society for a while now. The whole Brexit debate focussed on immigrants from eastern Europe entering the country and taking local jobs. Anonymous letters continue today, in the form of hate mail and online trolling,” reflects Basu.
George Edalji was born to an Indian Parsi father who converted to Christianity, Shapurji Edalji, and an English mother. Shapurji went on to become the first Indian-origin vicar to have a parish in England, in the village of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire. The mixed-race family, an uncommon feature for its time, were at the receiving end of a lot of harassment and the wrongful conviction of George affected them all deeply.
Today, on the face of it, there is nothing in the village that would serve as a reminder of its troubling past. The fields have been built upon and the mines are no longer there. But Shapurji’s old vicarage and church remain.
“Local history societies in the area are still very aware of the case, which put the village in the spotlight at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Basu, who retraced the family’s steps to the village in the West Midlands region of England in the course of her research.
Now, as the forgotten tale has been pieced together into a comprehensive account and is ready to hit the shelves, Basu hopes that this “real-life Sherlock Holmes mystery that involves an Indian” will appeal to mystery lovers worldwide.