These infelicities aside, the book is thorough and authoritative. It is a fine testament not just to George but to all of the Edaljis, their persistence and forbearance in the face of suspicion and disaster. Anyone who knows the story will remember that although it alights on the pressure points of early twentieth-century England – race, class and Empire – it is ultimately a frustrating, inconclusive set of events with little justice or closure for anybody. Shrabani Basu can offer no solution or fairness at such a distance, though she has plenty of cool outrage. The importance of this work is represented symbolically in an afterword in which the author is glimpsed first searching for the grave of her subject and then clearing away the moss and dirt that has accrued about it, ensuring, both literally and metaphorically, that the name of Edalji remains, for now, in the light.
A journalist by training, Basu writes pithily and engagingly, with an eye for striking detail. She clearly thought Edalji’s woeful treatment worth revisiting in the wake of recent debate about race and empire, though her story is really more about class and rural petty-mindedness. But she gives a good account of what it was like for someone with a dark skin to be mired in a toxic environment sullied by some very unsavoury people.
What adds an element of freshness to Basu’s account is a new cache of papers she has consulted that show how much time and energy Anson and Doyle spent on trying to prove each other wrong. She also points out that, in the light of the Macpherson Report and the Windrush scandal, in some ways the Edalji case was never really solved. “You appeared to read a great deal upon her which was quite invisible to me,” blusters Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes story A Case of Identity, and receives the cool reply, “Not invisible but unnoticed.” Whether penetrating disguises at a glance, or zooming in on details such as a scuffed toecap, Holmes makes other characters notice everything they had previously ignored. What Basu’s book vividly reminds us is that the same skill might be needed to recognise contemporary examples of racism we simply take for granted.