Yet the book, for all its compulsive readability, is also curiously depthless. There is a gulf between its fine attention to historical detail and its rather inconsequential subject matter. The difference between documentation and fiction is not primarily one between the true and the imaginary. Novels can contain lots of historical facts and still be novels. It is a question of what they make of them. "Fiction" does not mean untrue: It means pressing actual facts into the service of some symbolic or conceptual pattern, so that they achieve a deeper resonance and come to speak of more than just themselves.
It is here that Arthur & George fails to deliver. It is not that the book does not try to pluck something "meaningful" from this bald historical record. Lurking beneath the narrative are reflections on truth and fiction, the parallel between the artist and the detective, the instability of facts and the sweated labor involved in distinguishing charlatanry from the genuine article. Perhaps what we see, as with spiritualism, is a shadowy symptom of some underlying world that is more real than the observable one; or perhaps what you see is what you get. In the end, the novel is more about epistemology than Edalji. Just as it mixes fiction and fact in its form, so it broods upon their vexed relation in content. Sherlock Holmes is an imaginary character often mistaken for an actual one. But the instability of truth is the merest cliché of postmodern art, and Barnes has little to add to it. There is indeed an "idea" in the book, to render it more than mere documentation, but it does not adequately inform its materials.
Still, there are some splendid local touches. When George is consigned to prison, he learns from a fellow inmate that Jews are sent to a special prison with a rather softer regime. The result is that it can be hard to distinguish between real Jews and "prison Jews," those who assumed Judaism to give themselves an easier ride behind bars. George is photographed by the prison authorities, told to grow a beard and photographed again, in case he escapes and grows one as a disguise. There is no doubt, either, that miscarriages of justice interest the British these days, after a series of infamous cases in which police lied through their teeth to put innocent men and women behind bars as supposed IRA bombers. One difference between the British and other Europeans is that the British used to trust their police and now do not, while their more sagacious Continental colleagues never did in the first place.
Toward the end of the novel, there is a lengthy, exquisitely nuanced, wonderfully subtle conversation between Doyle and a senior police officer, ranging in topic from race and religion to Oscar Wilde and the nature of moral guilt, which is testimony in itself to Barnes's extraordinary artistry. Yet Doyle's meteoric rise through the British Establishment, as a friend of the king, champion of the Empire and illustrious public figure, is more reported than dramatized. The spotlight shifts instead to his notoriously tangled love life, which this reviewer at least found less fascinating than his public involvements. Perhaps it is known as middle age. There is a great deal to be admired in this lucid, sophisticated narrative, but one can see why it didn't win the Man Booker Prize.