In 1906, famed mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle took up the cause of George Edalji, a half-Indian lawyer who'd been falsely accused and convicted of sneaking into his neighbors' fields and mutilating their cattle. The affiliation between the two men—a minor part of Doyle's life story and a major part of Edalji's—prompts Julian Barnes' historical novel Arthur & George, though Barnes doesn't bring his protagonists together until around page 225 of a 400-page book. Prior to that, he jumps between their biographies, emphasizing similarities and pointedly noting differences. Both men are lapsed Christians, analytical to a fault, and mutually beholden to a romanticized standard of English propriety, but where Doyle is outgoing, athletic, and imaginative, Edalji is meekly single-minded and befuddled by simple social courtesy. Together, they represent the highest hopes and persistent weaknesses of the British Empire at the dawn of the 20th century.

Barnes has a terrific story to tell, and he doesn't muck it up. Adopting a straightforward, slightly formal prose style, Barnes piles up the vignettes and odd details from each man's life, spending more time with each as he goes along, until he comes to a matched set of literary coups: extended back-to-back passages that give first a full account of Edalji's arrest, trial, and incarceration, and then a lengthy spin through Doyle's tricky extramarital romance with the woman who became his second wife. Throughout, Barnes adopts an intimate third-person voice as he shifts from character to character—just enough to let readers know that not everything is as his dual protagonists believe.

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Arthur & George sorts through half a dozen recurring themes, from spiritual quests to the way people make their desires known when rigorous codes of behavior get in their way. But mostly, the book is about presumption. As the author of Sherlock Holmes' detective tales, Doyle was known for "beginning with the ending," then making the facts fit his conclusion. In real life, this was exactly what happened to the eccentric-seeming Edalji, whose emotional repression and foreign origins made him suspect from childhood. Even after Doyle rallies to Edalji's aid—in concluding chapters as riveting as any forensic mystery—his deductions rely on the notion that any behavior can look strange out of context. That's what Barnes gets at as well: that everyone's life, examined properly, resolves into an impossible puzzle.