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History, fiction mix for tale told with wit

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ARTHUR AND GEORGE, by Julian Barnes, Knopf, 388 pages, $24.95.

Beyond the clever title, Julian Barnes' historical novel "Arthur and George," about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edaljiv, is compelling reading.

Conan Doyle was, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Edalji was a half-Indian lawyer (or solicitor) who was wrongfully convicted in 1903 of mutilating farm animals. And the basics of this story come from real life — the way in which Conan Doyle played detective (in a very Holmesian way) to clear Edalji's name and find the real criminal.

Barnes has done massive, splendid research into the lives of both men, using the factual material whenever it can be found to frame the story, and then making up the rest.

Because Conan Doyle is known to have taken on a select number of difficult crime cases to solve after the manner of his fictional character, it's terribly interesting to see how he went about it. With an abundance of material available about Conan Doyle and much less about Edalji, Barnes had to fill in the blanks. And he has done so with exceptional literary skill.

Barnes' chosen format is to tell Arthur and George's stories in parallel form, writing first about Arthur and then about George.

The reader gets into the genteel story of Arthur as he studies medicine, then shifts gears to become a famous author, coping with the serious illness of his wife, Touie, while falling in love with a charming young woman named Jean.

The story then shifts to George, as we learn about his growing years in a vicarage, where his father is the vicar. During these years, the family must contend with cruel pranks and serious personal accusations, mostly through frightening, anonymous letters sent to the Edalji and local people in the village.

Since there are eccentricities surrounding George's family — such as George being forced to sleep with his father in a locked bedroom (George's mother sleeps in another room), even when he becomes a single adult — there is ample material for the letter-writers.

George suffers severe persecution that is quite obviously racially inspired from his earliest years. While still living at home, he becomes a solicitor. When a series of local farm animals are mutilated in nighttime attacks, letter writers blame it on George, even though the evidence is virtually non-existent.

Huge mistakes made by the police increase the severity of the problem, and George, who trusts that right will prevail, is actually convicted and imprisoned as the alleged perpetrator of these crimes.

It is only after George is out of prison but unable to practice law because of his ex-con status that Arthur learns of his case, arranges to meet him and then uses all his finesse, sophistication and thoroughness to clear George's name.

One of the best sections of the book is an eloquent speech made by Arthur when he decides to take George's case: "I am going to make a great deal of noise. The English — the official English — do not like noise. They think it vulgar; it embarrasses them. But if calm reason has not worked, I shall give them noisy reason. I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps. I shall bang a big drum."

As oratorically impressive as it is, that speech was never delivered by Arthur; it was made up in its entirety by Barnes.

The central conceit of this story is dealing with injustice, and it is told with wit and care by a superb writer. Barnes plays the role of a scholar to the hilt but balances it with the role of a gifted novelist. He has developed his characters beyond the historical evidence at times, but always with ingenuity and an unmistakable touch of class.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com