Writing a good, fast-paced historical thriller means sifting through a mountain of data. Existing literature on the topic, government reports, eyewitness accounts, handwritten diaries; it can resemble a bottomless pit at times. Above everything else, when you finally have everything you need to tell your story, the real struggle begins: How do you ensure your story does not read like a dry, officious, sanitised version of events?
Shrabani Basu’s solution in her latest work of non-fiction, The Mystery Of The Parsee Lawyer, is to combine a novelist’s eye for interesting details with an experienced journalist’s instinctive “big-picture” sprawl. The author of Victoria & Abdul (2010) and Spy Princess: The Life Of Noor Inayat Khan (2006), Basu knows how to write thorough, engaging, well-researched historical non-fiction. This book is about the false conviction of George Edalji, a mixed-race solicitor of Parsi descent—in 1903, Edalji was sentenced to seven years in prison after being falsely accused of a series of animal mutations in the Staffordshire coal miners’ village of Great Wyrley (Edalji was the son of the local vicar) in the UK. The racial prejudice around Edalji was, of course, a big factor in all this.
Drawing on a wealth of archival material, Basu tells us the story of Edalji’s trial, conviction and eventual release after a number of prominent figures from Edwardian society protested against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. Chief among them was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous literary detective of all time. During an email interview, Basu spoke about how the Edalji case came at a time of personal turmoil for Doyle. His wife Louisa Hawkins had just died a few months ago and he was feeling guilty about finally having the opportunity to marry Jean Leckie, the woman he had fallen in love with during his wife’s prolonged illness.
“For Conan Doyle, (the case) became something different to focus on,” says Basu. “Seeking justice for George gave him a purpose. He said himself in his memoirs that ‘the Edalji case came suddenly and turned my energies into an entirely unexpected channel’. In some ways, helping George also helped Conan Doyle. One can see his obsession with the case as he continues to fight for compensation for George.”
Here’s an example of the kind of “hybrid” style Basu employs in The Mystery Of The Parsee Lawyer: novelistic detail with “big-picture” journalism. Notice how this passage sums up the socioeconomic background of Great Wyerly with a few quick strokes while also giving the reader an “on-ground” feel, not unlike a massive tracking shot in an action-adventure movie, where we get a sweeping view of the area where the events depicted in the film are taking place.
“Bells would ring out from these mines calling out the end of shifts. Dotting the landscape were a few large farms. The area was typical of most areas in the Midlands, with low literacy rates and a sizeable working-class population prone to industrial accidents and health problems. Horses, pit ponies, cows and sheep were an integral part of the landscape. Disgruntled workers would sometimes take revenge on their employers by attacking their livestock.”
Edalji’s case, and Conan Doyle’s involvement in it, was also the subject of Julian Barnes’ masterful 2005 novel Arthur & George, later adapted into the 2015 ITV series of the same name. When Basu first read the novel upon its release, she felt there was nothing more to say on the topic. But she later realised that as a journalist, recording the facts was important for her—plus she found new material. It’s fascinating to compare the narrative trajectories of Arthur and George (the book as well as the series) and The Mystery Of The Parsee Lawyer. When I watched the show, I agreed with critics who felt that the final episode amplified a “white saviour” narrative around Conan Doyle, by over-emphasising his role in Edalji’s release.
And yet, I didn’t feel this way about Barnes’ novel. In part, this is because Barnes is clearly a superior writer, no offence to the ITV folks. But it’s also because we go to different media for different things. In a mainstream, prime-time dramatised TV adaptation, a “hero-centric” approach is almost baked into the narrative structure. It’s a formal feature. Novels, especially those by masters like Barnes, are far subtler creatures. Similarly, readers’ expectations from a work of non-fiction are different from those around a novel—in the latter, we are far more tolerant and accepting of notions like “poetic justice” or techniques like deus ex machina.
“I do think that a novelist and a writer of non-fiction have different methods even if they have the same story to tell,” Basu says. “Pat Barker’s Regeneration is set during World War I, when the poet Siegfried Sassoon is sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh where victims of trauma and shell shock were being treated. I loved the book. Barker brings the situation to life in such a beautiful way while using the archival material to tell the facts and create a fictional narrative. She draws you into the story.”
Basu, of course, is no stranger to cinematic adaptations herself. Her book Victoria & Abdul, about the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian Muslim attendant Abdul Karim, was adapted into a 2017 film by director Stephen Frears. Spy Princess is currently being adapted into a limited series, starring (and executive- produced by) Freida Pinto. “There are times you watch a film based on a little-known true story, and most people instinctively want to know the real story,” Basu says. “I know that many people who watched the film Victoria & Abdul based on my book came back to me with many questions. Nearly everyone wanted to know how much of what they saw was true and how much was fictional. Many went on to read the book after the film. I think it’s a natural instinct.”
Reading The Mystery Of The Parsee Lawyer is a poignant experience today because of the way the UK seems intent on rolling back years of progress on tackling racism. In March, Boris Johnson’s government (through the British Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities) published a report that declared the UK to be free of systemic racism, going as far as to call the UK “a model for other white-majority countries”. The report was widely criticised, including by the United Nations, which said the authors of the report had repackaged the same racial tropes they claimed to be fighting. Where did it all start going so wrong for the UK?
“I think it started with the Brexit referendum,” Basu says. “It put the ‘fear of the foreigner’ on top of the anxiety list and politicians and right-wing media whipped up the insecurity for political gain. Ever since, it has been a downward spiral. While the days of ‘Paki-bashing’ may be over, there is a clearly an underlying prejudice against black people and other ethnic minorities in British society. Report after report in the past has revealed this but little action has ever been taken.”
“Unless Britain is prepared to teach the full impact of its colonial history starting at school level, there will be a blinkered view of the empire and no understanding of cultural history. As a famous black writer once said, ‘I am here, because you were there.’ This needs to be properly understood,” she says.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.