Book review: The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer’ by Shrabani Basu

The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer’ by Shrabani Basu; Bloomsbury, Rs. 699, 320 pages

Towards the late 19th century, the family of an Indian vicar in rural England became the target of malicious anonymous letters, pranks and other assorted mischief. In 1903, things took a more sinister turn, when village cattle started to turn up mutilated or dead—the work of a night-time assailant in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. George Edalji, a lawyer and the eldest son of Shapoorji, a Parsi convert to Anglicanism, and a white British woman, quickly came to be accused of the crimes. Despite dubious and contradictory evidence, the short-sighted “oriental” was decried as a blood-thirsty maniac with mysterious proclivities.

Tried and convicted in an inflamed atmosphere of racism and sentenced to a seven-year prison term, Edalji lost his legal licence and any hope of a reprieve—there was not yet a system in place for appeals. Still, Edalji was steadfast in protesting his innocence, and with little to lose, wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, the wildly popular writer of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. Outraged by the apparent injustice, Conan Doyle, by now a respected public figure, set out to investigate. The British justice system had met its match.

Though it contained many of the same flavours of France’s Dreyfus affair—a wrongful conviction and sham trial, the involvement of a prominent writer, the imprints of xenophobia and racism, and the eventual unravelling of the truth—this episode remains comparatively forgotten. It has now been solidly resurrected in journalist and writer Shrabani Basu’s The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, an engrossing tale of intrigue, prejudice, investigation and disclosure. It is also a clever portrait of the artist as a crusader, the detective creator as detective himself.

Doyle is meticulous in his probe, even carrying on correspondence during his honeymoon, and unrelenting in his badgering of the authorities. His interventions and articles prove crucial. This is true crime, in a twisted, perverse sense; beyond the maiming that sets the story in motion, it’s a crime by the state against a hapless mixed-race British citizen.

Some of the ground is familiar from Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George, a fictional reimagining of the friendship between the two men, and Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defence, a true story focused on a similar wrongful conviction case that Conan Doyle championed. But Basu’s material contains new correspondence between some of the principals and a more granular telling of the entire sordid saga. Though it runs a bit long with a tendency to over-detail, it remains satisfying throughout, building through careful research and propelled by the innately dramatic trajectory of events.

Basu, who previously wrote Victoria and Abdul, about the queen’s friendship with her Indian servant, brings us another story of an unexpected friendship from the days of empire. It is just as rewarding.

One comment

  • William Robert Da Silva

    Since I do not want to leave my security in the hands of Akismet or hCaptcha or rCaptcha or whatever, and since I do not want to yield to cookies as far as I can keep them off in accessing information online and on your website, I might as well unsubscribe and stop sharing these themes with FB and Twitter.
    I have come across this story of Edalji before. It was in association with Arthur Conan Doyle and some other writer in UK I have forgotten the details. This seems to rekindle the memories again. Thanks for the story. I have read it from S Basu as much her earlier Victoria and Abdul which was excellent. Thanks for the review.
    William Robert

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