Arthur Conan Doyle on the case Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Arthur Conan Doyle and the case of the wronged Parsee

How the Sherlock Holmes creator helped a victim of racial injustice
March 3, 2021

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the most famous detective of all time, once attempted to solve a real case. In 1906, Conan Doyle was contacted by George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer who had been wrongly convicted of butchering horses in the village of Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. Shrabani Basurecounts how the author was so indignant at Edalji’s treatment—by the police, the legal system and the press—that he was determined to clear Edalji’s name and find the true culprit.

The trial had been a farce, yet the lawyer was sentenced to seven years in prison. There was no clear motive, although according to one newspaper it was widely believed that Edalji slaughtered the animals to make “nocturnal sacrifices to strange gods.”

Edalji’s family had been subjected to racist hostility ever since his father, a Parsi convert to Christianity who emigrated from India in 1866, was appointed the parish vicar of Great Wyrley. As a schoolboy, Edalji was harassed by anonymous letters. When Edalji as an adult began receiving hateful letters regarding the horse mutilations, they were taken as proof of his guilt. The private notes of chief inspector Anson reveal his contempt for Edalji and determination to pin the crimes on him.

Prison gave Edalji time to read the Sherlock Holmes stories. When growing public pressure led to his early release, he wrote to Conan Doyle, imploring for help to clear his name for good. Conan Doyle scoured Great Wyrley for the true culprit. He wrote a series of articles in the Daily Telegraph taking apart the case against Edalji and campaigned for him to receive compensation. The pair remained friends until Conan Doyle’s death in 1930.

While the story may be familiar to some from Julian Barnes’s 2005 fictional retelling in his novel Arthur and George, Basu uses recently released letters to provide a detailed account of the two men’s efforts to right the wrongs of the state. Although at times the narrative is over explained, this is a compelling story of Edalji’s struggle for both dignity and justice.

The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyerby Shrabani Basu (Bloomsbury, £20)