How would Sherlock Holmes fare in real life?

This captivating novel by Julian Barnes examines Arthur Conan Doyle's actual foray into criminal justice.

It's January. The holidays are over and days feel just a tad grim. It's the perfect moment for a novel that goes down like comfort food. And yet, what about that New Year's resolution that your 2006 reading list will include more Good Books by Important Authors?

Fear not. This January offers the perfect choice: Arthur & George, the 2005 Booker prize-nominated novel by Julian Barnes.

This engaging tale is as pleasing a read as they come, and yet it is also the chance to admire the skillful work of a top contemporary novelist. (Sort of the literary equivalent of low-fat, calcium-enriched yogurt that somehow tastes exactly like chocolate cheesecake.)

"Arthur & George" is the novelized account of a true incident in which Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, battled to overturn the conviction of George Edalji, an English attorney of Indian origin who had been falsely accused of brutally killing farm animals and writing threatening anonymous letters to his own family.

Even at the time it seemed obvious that racial prejudice lay behind the conviction, a decision so overtly unjust that it helped to establish the concept of a court of appeal.

Barnes starts at the very beginning - with the childhoods of both Doyle and Edalji. In short chapters he cuts back and forth between the two boys as they mature.

The portraits that emerge are detailed and subtle. (Barnes may occasionally seem to be indulging in a leisurely stroll through his characters' lives, but don't be fooled. Nothing in this book is wasted, and all the threads will eventually be drawn together.)

Doyle blossoms into a self-assured and even bumptious young man, blessed with curiosity and energy. Edalji - who suffers from severe myopia and is odd-looking - remains quiet and withdrawn, although buoyed by a surprising reserve of pride and - we ultimately discover - remarkable fortitude.

Both men, however, are first and foremost gentlemen of intellect, and they exhibit a sort of very British probity - a relentless determination to adhere to certain basic rules of human conduct, whatever the circumstances. It's hard to patiently await the moment when these two will finally meet, knowing that in an odd fashion they are soulmates.

That moment doesn't arrive, however, until more than halfway through the book. By then, Edalji has already served a jail sentence for his wrongful conviction. Doyle, for his part, is mired in a lethargic state of grief over the death of his first wife. (It's a grief made all the more crippling by his guilty knowledge that her successor is already waiting in line.)

But a letter from Edalji outlining the details of his case both outrages and energizes Doyle. What Edalji is asking for is help in clearing his name so he can return to his true love: his practice as an attorney.

Don't expect, however, a feel-good tale of justice set right. This narrative is far too nuanced for that. And neither is this a whodunit intended for mystery fans.

On the contrary, if anything, Barnes gently mocks the Holmesian belief that life is a problem to be solved by logic and close observation. Instead, the story suggests, human justice can never be more than approximate because "truth" - always filtered through one individual consciousness or another - is so fluid a commodity.

What is real? When is goodness genuine? Can either innocence or love ever be absolute? And what is the nature of Doyle's attachment to spiritualism: a cruel hoax or something more enlightened? Such questions weave throughout the narrative.

Barnes is never cruel to his characters. He allows them to retain high ground even as he concedes their faults. The conclusions arrived at in this narrative are neither existential nor depressing - although they certainly hint that "reality" is a far deeper mystery than any we have yet fathomed.

Doyle is sometimes pompous and occasionally ridiculous. Edalji can be infuriating and is less heroic than we might wish. But the precision with which they are drawn is absolute, and it is all part of the skill that makes "Arthur & George" both an entertaining read and a very good book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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