British Indian author unearths a Sherlock Holmes mystery with a very real twist

British Indian author unearths a Sherlock Holmes mystery with a very real twist

It has anonymous threatening letters, intrigue and mysteriously killed animals – ‘The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the case of the foreigner in the English village’ is a real-life crime investigated by none other than the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

When an Indian-origin lawyer wrongly accused and imprisoned for mutilating animals in the early 20th century appealed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to help him prove his innocence, the celebrated author got drawn to the English village of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire to piece together the clues. What he discovered was a disturbing truth that involved the harassment of a mixed-race British Indian family headed by Shapurji Edalji, an Indian Parsi convert to Christianity who was also the first Indian-origin vicar to have a parish in England, his English wife and their son George Edalji.

Now, London-based author of historical accounts such as ‘Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’ and ‘Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant’ Shrabani Basu has pieced together this real-life mystery investigated by Sir Arthur for her latest book – released in the UK this week and in India next week.

Here she tells ‘iGlobal’ a little more about this fascinating and troubling crime story.

Q: How did you come across this fascinating crime mystery?

A: I was aware of George Edalji for many years. What fascinated me was the fact that the only true crime that Arthur Conan Doyle investigated personally was to do with an Indian. To me, it was a story that was calling out to be told. Like most people, I am a fan of the Sherlock Holmes books and love a mystery.

But I needed more details. In 2015, I learnt that some letters and files belonging to the main police officer in the case were going to be auctioned. I knew there would be a new lead, and I followed it up. It led to the discovery of startling new material in the case.

Q: Does the village of Great Wyrley have any enduring memories of this mystery?

A: On the face of it, there is nothing in the village now that reminds you of the past. The fields have been built upon and the mines are no longer there. But the Vicarage and Church remain.

I spoke to a retired local schoolteacher, who said that even 20 years ago, the schoolchildren in his class would talk about the George Edalji case. Local history societies in the area are still very aware of the case, which put the village in the spotlight at the beginning of the 20th century.

Q: Do you feel this story has resonance with our migration debate today?

A: Absolutely! The more I read the letters and the press coverage at the time, the more it felt that this could be happening now.

Mistrust of immigrants, the fear of the foreigner, have been issues in Western society for a while now. The whole Brexit debate focussed on immigrants from East Europe entering the country and taking local jobs. Anonymous letters continue today in the form of hate mail and online trolling.

Q: What aspects of the story do you feel will strike a chord with Indian readers?

A: The book will release in India on March 10. Few people are aware that there was a direct connection between Arthur Conan Doyle and India.

I think Indian readers will find it interesting that in 1907 Arthur Conan Doyle responded to a letter by a young Indian lawyer appealing to him for help to clear his name, and he took up the cause.

Even [Former Indian Prime Minister] Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an 18-year-old student at the time at Harrow School in London, got fascinated with the case and remarked that George had no doubt been targeted because he was Indian.

It is one of the most famous cases of miscarriage of justice in Edwardian England, that has been forgotten over time. It’s a real-life Sherlock Holmes mystery that involves an Indian. What’s not to like!

Q: Would the story of the so-called “Wyrley Ripper” make a good script for screen too?

A: It is a great story for the screen, but that is not in my hands. That is for filmmakers to decide. Of course, I’d be delighted if that happened!

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