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Our Book of the Month: The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer
On 27 April Sara Wajid, Co-CEO of Birmingham Museums Trust, joins best selling author Shrabani Basu to discuss her newly published book. In the run up to this event Sara explores this publication as our Book of the Month.
George Edalji (pronounced “Edle-ji”), son of the first Asian vicar on British soil, and a 27 year old solicitor practising in Birmingham, was arrested for a spate of livestock mutilations in 1903. He was convicted, sentenced to seven years’ hard labour and paroled after three. After his release, he wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, whose stories he’d read in prison, and Conan Doyle agreed to investigate.
Doyle’s real-life investigation and the clearing of Edalji’s name makes up the bulk of Shrabani Basu’s narrative. She covers the Christian conversion of Edalji’s Parsi father in Mumbai, his trip to England and his marriage to a vicar’s daughter: enough on its own to provide material for its own book. Basu then relates a poison-pen campaign that blighted George’s family life during his teenage years. Death threats and allegations, faeces left on the doorstep of the vicarage, and an unsympathetic police force left the family distraught. The letters dried up without explanation after seven years, and George’s twenties were blameless and unruffled: until horses were found dying in agony in the fields around his village, their bellies slashed open.
Basu shows a baffled police force homing in on the only immigrant family in the area. The model student was eclipsed by an “Oriental”, possibly sacrificing to “strange gods”. Bail was set at a hopelessly steep £500. Edalji refused to pay, believing that any further crimes committed while he was behind bars would be enough to demonstrate his innocence. Another horse was killed while George was in custody: the prosecution claimed that this was a sign that George was in charge of a “gang of ruffians”, carrying out his orders.
Basu describes the first meeting of the two men in Trafalgar Square and Conan Doyle’s instant judgement that someone with such obviously poor eyesight could never have crossed fields at night, attacked animals and got home without mishap. “There, in a single physical defect, lay the moral certainty of his innocence.” Conan Doyle was soon able to amass 10,000 signatures in his appeal to exonerate George.
Doyle carefully sorted through the details: bloodstains, hair, muddy boots. A century of police procedurals, inspired by Conan Doyle himself, have taught us to appreciate this kind of drama. A handwriting analyst helped convict George, but the same analyst was proved disastrously wrong in another high-profile case: what does and doesn’t count as respectable science proves to be central.
Human warmth adds to the story: Edalji was a guest at Doyle’ second wedding and Doyle spent a fair chunk of his honeymoon working on the case. His feud with the obviously racist Chief Constable and his excitement as he homes in on the man he believes to be the real culprit round out the story. The melancholy coda is that George never received compensation. Basu traces the rest of his unremarkable life, finally discovering his unvisited grave.
Some broader social analysis might have been useful: Doyle himself drew parallels with the Dreyfus case in France in which the French Army’s only Jewish officer was unjustly convicted of treason until rescued by Emile Zola. However, the Dreyfus case became part of cultural history while George’s treatment faded from view. Nevertheless, Basus’s detailed history will be a valuable resource for future historians.
Tickets for In Conversation with Sara Wajid and Shrabani Basu can be booked here.
The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village
The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village by Shrabani Basu
In the village of Great Wyrley near Birmingham, someone is mutilating horses. Someone is also sending threatening letters to the vicarage, where the vicar, Shahpur Edalji, is a Parsi convert to Christianity and the first Indian to have a parish in England. His son George – quiet, socially awkward and the only boy at school with distinctly Indian features – grows up into a successful barrister, till he is improbably linked to and then prosecuted for the above crimes in a case that left many convinced that justice hadn’t been served. When he is released early, his conviction still hangs over him. Having lost faith in the police and the legal system, George Edalji turns to the one man he believes can clear his name – the one whose novels he spent his time reading in prison, the creator of the world’s greatest detective. When he writes to Arthur Conan Doyle asking him to meet, Conan Doyle agrees. From the author of Victoria and Abdul comes an eye-opening look at race and an unexpected friendship in the early days of the twentieth century, and the perils of being foreign in a country built on empire.