It’s elementary dear reader, why “Masterpiece: Arthur & George” (PBS Distribution) is so good.
The brilliant Martin Clunes stars as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in a real-life case that inspired the great author to put down his pen and turn detective. This program traces a string of notorious animal mutilations alleged to involve an attorney named George Edalji.
The series is adapted from Julian Barnes’s acclaimed novel of the same name, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the English-speaking world. Co-starring are Arsher Ali as George Edalji, a mixed-race solicitor living in the English Midlands; Art Malik as his Indian father, an Anglican minister; and Emma Fielding as his Scottish mother. Also appearing are Charles Edwards as Alfred Wood, Sir Arthur’s private secretary; and Hattie Morahan as Jean Leckie, the woman that Doyle befriended while his wife was gravely ill.
The Edalji case saw an improbable defendant, mild-mannered lawyer George Edalji, convicted for mutilating a pony and, by implication, a host of other farm animals in a slashing spree known as the Great Wyrley Outrages. The anonymous misdeeds also included poison pen letters and intimidation aimed, oddly enough, at George’s family. To Doyle, the whole affair suggested blatant racism, targeting a family viewed as outsiders by the local people and officials.
“Arthur & George” opens with the illness and death of Doyle’s wife, Louisa. Wracked with guilt because he fears that Louisa suspected his attachment to another woman, Jean Leckie, Sir Arthur is at a low ebb—until he receives a letter from the recently paroled George, who wants the world-renowned author of Sherlock Holmes to help him clear his name so he can resume his legal career.
Unfamiliar with the Edalji affair, Doyle arranges to meet George and uses a Sherlock-style observation to deduce his innocence. He takes the case but soon finds that he attracts a great deal of unwelcome attention. For instance, in calling on the trial judge, Doyle is greeted with open arms—and a stack of the judge’s Sherlock Holmes books to autograph. Turning to business, the justice sternly warns Doyle that by meddling in the case, “You will taint not only yourself … but the world’s favorite consulting detective!”
Sir Arthur is also being tainted by his increasingly public relationship with Jean, which is deemed unseemly for such a recent widower. With Wood acting as his Watson, Doyle uncovers a rush to judgment against Edalji that provides plenty of suspects and even a connection to the real criminal mastermind who inspired Professor Moriarty.
Exasperated by the mounting twists and turns, the harried author exclaims at one point, “If this were a story, I’d change the beginning, I’d change the end, or I’d try something else!”
As we said, it’s elementary. And damn good.