In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Love, etc.) takes us to the twilight of the Victorian era to resuscitate a real-life story about the brief but legally significant intersection between the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Edalji, a young British-born solicitor of Indian descent, who, due to racist malice, police incompetence, judicial stupidity and governmental indifference, is jailed for a crime he did not and could not possibly commit. Along the way, Barnes casts a quizzical light on such topics as xenophobia, the nature of national identity, the role of the celebrity intellectual in public affairs, psychic phenomena and how societies ought to be judged. It’s a heady brew, but it goes down easily.

The novel begins in childhood, with Doyle growing up in Edinburgh and Edalji in the Midlands, their stories related in alternate chapters titled simply “Arthur,” “George” and occasionally “Arthur & George.” Doyle has a weak, alcoholic father and a stalwart mother who instills in him a love for tales of chivalry and the thrill of narrative. Fittingly for someone destined to become the author of the world’s most celebrated detective stories, his earliest childhood memory is of a dead body — his grandmother’s, laid out in a bedroom awaiting burial.

Edalji’s beginnings are, inevitably, very different. For a start, he has brown skin at a time when little of it is to be seen in England. But neither Edalji’s Scottish mother nor his Indian-born father, the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, vicar in the village of Great Wyrley, appears to pay the matter much attention. For them, young George is as English as Queen Victoria herself, brown skin or not, and that’s all there is to it. Father teaches son to judge his country by the values and ideals it professes, not by whatever racial slights might come his way from uneducated country bumpkins.

Not that young George should think of the latter that way, ever. As a good Christian, he must be humble and refrain from looking down on anyone, no matter how deserving of contempt — another of the Reverend’s sermons. Nor is the fact that Edalji’s peers shun him granted significance, racial or otherwise. Severely myopic and friendless, Edalji grows up painstakingly tutored in good morals and good grammar by his more-English-than-the-English Parsee father. That neither of them is seen as English by the locals, however, becomes apparent when a bizarre hate-mail campaign is initiated against them. Dead rabbits, strangled birds, broken eggs and excrement are left on their lawn. Notices are placed in newspapers advertising the vicarage as a place for singles to find marriage partners. Then a key from a distant school is discovered by Edalji on the vicarage doorstep, and the police for no logical reason accuse him of having stolen it. Though he’s studying to be a solicitor, he’s already (without knowing it) on the path to prison. Barnes never hammers at his themes, but this must be one of the great novels about police stupidity and malice.

Though Doyle makes frequent appearances — studying to become an ophthalmologist and then, when his waiting room remains empty, finding time to marry, write and create the character of Sherlock Holmes — the first half of the novel really belongs to Edalji. If he seemstoo aloof and priggish to make an appealing hero, the pathos of his situation, and his stoical reaction to it, nonetheless make him a moving one in an austere, “Victorian” manner. In fact, part of the pleasure we get from this novel illustrates the paradox that while we are often appalled by the Victorians’ uptight ways, we secretly admire them for their self-control, commitment to education and precise use of language. (More generally, we enjoy reading about them because they don’t talk on cell phones, fiddle with BlackBerries, and spend hours slumped on oversize couches watching American Idol.)

Stodgy in some ways, Edalji is curiously forward-looking. As a young solicitor, he writes a brief but groundbreaking guide on how train passengers can protect themselves legally against bad service. For instance, what should be the fate of the fat man who buys a second-class ticket but can’t fit through the second-class door and so moves into first class? Must he pay the increase in fare, or is it the railway’s fault for making the door too small? In defending the rights of the hypothetical fatty, Edalji reveals himself as not just sympathetic to the underappreciated but prescient in certain respects.

The hate campaign against Edalji and his father ceases, unsolved, as inexplicably as it began. Then, after a lapse of a few years, it starts again, and this time it’s more serious. Horses and cattle are killed, their bellies slit open with surgical precision, in the fields surrounding the vicarage in which Edalji still lives with his family. Anonymous letters claim that Edalji is the head of a mysterious gang of thugs perpetrating the heinous acts. Though the charge is preposterous on its face, the police not only charge Edalji with the killings, they also accuse him of writing the letters in which he is fingered.

All this would beggar belief if Barnes didn’t occasionally remind us that this is in fact a true story. Edalji, the solicitor who believes in the justness of British law as ardently as his father believes in the Bible, is put on trial and, ensnared in a web of absurdly circumstantial “evidence,” is found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. Throughout the ordeal, he remains stoical and hopeful that his name will eventually be cleared. He refuses to believe that his fate has anything to do with racism.

In the end, Edalji serves only three years of his sentence, after numerous public appeals and the support of his fellow solicitors finally spring him from prison. But his name has not been cleared, and he is unable to resume his career. He has simply been allowed to go free — an ex-convict with a permanent cloud over his head.

It is here that Arthur Conan Doyle finally enters the story with a vengeance. Now Britain’s most famous author after Rudyard Kipling, he takes up Edalji’s case with all the pent-up energy of a celebrity-crusader desperate to get his mind off his frustrating marital situation, in which he finds himself helplessly trapped between wife and mistress, gaining satisfaction from neither. There is also his passion for clairvoyance and psychic phenomena of all kinds, which, for fear of public ridicule, he must be careful not to express too boldly. The Edalji case, in other words — the shameful corruption of it, at which he will rail furiously — is just what he’s looking for. It’s a perfect excuse to blow off steam.

After arranging a meeting with Edalji, Doyle promises the lowly solicitor that he will turn Britain upside down in order to clear his name and right the horrendous injustice that has been done to him. He will expose the police for the corrupt mob of incompetents they are, and in effect play Sherlock Holmes for real by solving the case himself. Sensing that there are personal emotions roiling Doyle’s feverish eagerness to go public, Edalji is slightly alarmed at his savior’s fervor. Nonetheless, Doyle is as good as his word, managing to turn Edalji’s case into something like a mini Dreyfus Affair. His detective work turns out to be far below the standard of Holmes’, and if he never actually finds out who instigated the hate campaign against Edalji’s family and who killed the horses, he does succeed in clearing Edalji’s name as promised. More crucially, an appeals court is added to the legal system shortly afterward to help prevent such gross injustices in the future.

Though the ending of Arthur & George is anticlimactic (we learn who wrote the anonymous letters only in an “Author’s Note”), this is a rich historical novel riddled with contemporary resonances and tensions all the more powerful for being understated. If its straightforward approach to history seems atypical of the author of that elliptical masterpiece Flaubert’s Parrot, there are precious few other novelists at work today who’d be skillful enough to pull it off. Will Barnes ever write a dull or mediocre novel? On the strength of this one and all the others that preceded it, the prospect seems increasingly unlikely.

ARTHUR & GEORGE | By JULIAN BARNES | Knopf | 387 pages | $25 hardcover

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