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Unlocking Sherlock's creator

Barnes explores the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Best known for his winking, literary embellishment and celebration of Gustave Flaubert (Flaubert's Parrot), British novelist Julian Barnes turns to straight-ahead historical fiction with his new novel. In Arthur & George, Barnes takes on the real-life investigative forays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed author who became immersed in the wrongful conviction of a British-born, half-Indian solicitor in the early 1900s. Yes, that Arthur Conan Doyle, as in Sherlock Holmes' shepherd.

The solicitor, George Edalji, served time in prison after being accused of mutilating farm animals. It proved to be a ludicrous charge on several counts, starting with Edalji's obvious myopia, an insurmountable complication when attempting nighttime killings in dark, open fields. Who better to save him than Conan Doyle, an ophthalmologist turned mystery writer?

Barnes devotes much of the novel's final third to Conan Doyle's pursuit of an overturned verdict and financial compensation on Edalji's behalf. He does so with typical efficiency and aplomb, but excessive detail makes for a wearisome slog at times. There is little mystery here and the menu of carefully compiled counter-evidence items becomes bloated.

Arthur & George sparkles when it examines injustices in another milieu: those of the heart. Both Conan Doyle and Edalji prize dignity and honor above all else, sublimating their every emotion into their work and other dignified, stiff-upper-Brit-lip pursuits.

Barnes pierces the grand public successes of Conan Doyle's life with crackerjack aim. Sir Arthur, whose manly physical pursuits in far-flung locales are offset by his constant trips home seeking approval from his beloved Mam, dreads his readers' relentless devotion to the iconic Holmes, a literary creation he quickly comes to consider tiresome.

Instead, Conan Doyle takes delight dabbling in séances and related psychic realms, convinced he can solve the eternal riddle of the afterlife.

And, at the same time, Conan Doyle is hopelessly trapped in a love triangle that, despite every effort to avoid hurting his consumptive wife and his platonic mistress, leaves all involved depressed and depleted. Barnes describes the torment of honor within Conan Doyle's defiantly smoldering heart with precision.

He writes: "Arthur found something near a groan about to break from him, which he suppressed for the sake of the other first-class passengers. And that was all part of it -- the way you were obliged to live. You stifled a groan, you lied about your love, you deceived your legal wife, and all in the name of honour. That was the damned paradox of it: in order to behave well, you had to behave badly."

There is a bit of a paradox in the novel itself, as well. Barnes' talent is indisputable, his research of real-life events impeccable, his graceful prose unassailable.

Despite that, the real puzzle here is why Barnes didn't focus only on unraveling the mysteries of Conan Doyle's head and heart, skipping Edalji's dilemma altogether. Reading his embroidered, enchanting insight into Conan Doyle's psyche offers ample evidence that Barnes' solid literary performance could have soared that much higher. Indeed, it makes that deduction not just inevitable, but elementary.

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