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Julian Barnes, a literary stylist without rival, has fashioned riveting fiction out of almost comically esoteric mysteries (consider the brilliant point-counterpoint surrounding the question of which stuffed parrot was the true model for Loulou in Flaubert's "Un coeur simple"). His postmodern antics work because of an essential Englishness: beneath every diverting pirouette lies a bedrock of stodgy precision and abiding intelligence. In Arthur & George, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Barnes sidelines his immense cleverness to pursue a more conventional but sweepingly ambitious whodunit. He transforms an obscure historical footnote—Arthur Conan Doyle's campaign to right the Great Wyrley Outrages, a little-known miscarriage of British justice sometimes compared to France's Dreyfus affair—into a mesmerizing investigation of the Anglo-Saxon character.

Through parallel stories unfolding in tandem (a favorite Barnes device), the novelist juxtaposes Arthur's Catholic upbringing in nineteenth-century Edinburgh against George Edalji's modest childhood in a farming community outside Birmingham. Rash and impassioned, Arthur later flourishes in his haphazard professional endeavors while George, the dutiful solicitor son of a Parsi vicar, is falsely convicted in the gruesome mutilation of a pony. Feeling safely ensconced in "the beating heart of the British Empire," George assumes he will be vindicated on appeal, but Arthur recognizes that an exotic surname and dark skin set George decisively apart. Barnes teases out the ironies of a nation that lionizes Sherlock Holmes and his penetrating logic while steadfastly ignoring facts and principles contrary to its imperious notions of rectitude. Hypocrisy, Arthur sadly concludes, is "what this country does best." Arthur & George succeeds as an effortlessly gripping detective novel, a stirring morality tale, and an inspired riff on the fault lines threatening the English and their centuries of unshakable self-regard.

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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