The novel is a stubborn form—150 years ago it found the shapes and approaches that suited it, and it has never for long been happy in other clothing. The English novelist Julian Barnes accepts this: He has been fooling around in complex, intelligent ways with 19th-century figures and forms since his early success with Flaubert's Parrot. Now he brings out Arthur & George (Knopf), an utterly absorbing, beautifully crafted old-fashioned novel based on the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's taking up a miscarriage of justice at the turn of the last century—the false conviction of a half-Parsi, half-Scottish young solicitor named George Edalji. Frequently harassed by his local constabulary, Edalji was arrested for a series of ritualistic slaughters of cows, horses, and sheep that had terrorized the community for years. He was convicted on the flimsiest evidence and sent to jail. Eventually, his name was cleared, largely because of the publicity Conan Doyle brought to bear. (This case led to the creation of England's Court of Appeal.)
Conan Doyle is a magnificent figure for any novelist to capture: full of brio and ornate convictions, driven by athleticism and a powerful sexuality touchingly bounded by deep Victorian principles. Edalji is a more obscure figure, peculiar looking and deeply formal, cautious and shy: Barnes depicts him with an almost magical subtlety. The story alternates between Edalji's troubles and Conan Doyle's sumptuous biography: early fame, wealth, an ill but beloved wife, a noble love affair, and his inability to shake free of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, whose exploits Conan Doyle felt did not represent his true calling or greatest achievement. Arthur & George, rich and immensely readable, perfectly balances these radically different characters in a stream of flawless, driving sentences. The book is also sustained by Barnes's affectionate understanding of England's halting commitment both to art and to justice. This is an "English" novel in the most engaging sense of the word, and a great one.