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Michael Dirda

In his late thirties, Arthur meets the 21-year-old Jean Leckie, she flirts with him, he is smitten and the two soon confess their undying devotion to each other. But what now?

"It is impossible for him not to love Jean; and for her not to love him. It is impossible for him to divorce Touie, the mother of his children, whom he still regards with affection and respect; besides, only a cad would abandon an invalid. Finally, it is impossible to turn the affair into an intrigue by making Jean his mistress. Each of the three parties has his or her honour, even if Touie does not know hers is being considered in absentia . For that is an essential condition: Touie must not know."

Barnes spends the central portion of his novel on Arthur's tormenting ethical dilemma. For a man of character, the problem is, after all, fundamentally insoluble. So Arthur determines that his love for Jean will remain platonic, throws himself into work and his growing interest in spiritualism, behaves impeccably with Touie. Months, then years pass. Arthur finally admits to himself -- in a devastating sentence -- that "he has loved [his wife] as best a man can, given that he did not love her."

"There is no way out," Arthur realizes. "That is the beastliness of his position; or rather, each beckoning exit is marked Misery. In Lasker's Chess Magazine he reads of a position called Zugzwang , in which the player is unable to move any piece in any direction to any square without making his already imperiled state worse. This is what Arthur's life feels like."

And then, after nearly 10 years in which he has loved Jean and lived a lie, Arthur learns about George Edalji. The obvious miscarriage of justice galvanizes the knight-errant. Since the public identifies him with Sherlock Holmes, he will act as his burdensome creation would and clear the innocent and unmask the guilty.

Since Arthur & George is based on a true incident, many Baker Street fans will know the course and outcome of the investigations. But I won't say more about them here. More to the point, Barnes's artistry underscores that these two proper gentlemen are both, in fact, victimized by the systems they admire most -- the law and chivalry. Together, they are nonetheless able to redeem lives wracked by hopelessness and frustration.

Barnes's writing is, as usual, masterly throughout Arthur & George , not only as the pages shift from one man's consciousness to the other's but also in the way their author keeps the reader on edge. Facts are interpreted, then reinterpreted; the bigoted speak convincingly; nothing turns out quite as expected; and even the book's coda delivers a final shock.

Most of all, though, Barnes knows how to control readers' reactions, making us sicken as the Ripper reaches inside his jacket, feel horrified and indignant during George's show trial, suffer with Arthur in his attempts to remain an honorable man while still desiring a woman not his wife. There's an occasional bit of Sherlockiana -- despair is likened to the treacherous Grimpen Mire -- and even some neat, low-keyed humor. Arthur travels to meet George's parents and sister Maud:

"The family was glad of his arrival, but not effusive; conscious of his fame, yet not overawed. He was relieved for once to find himself in the presence of three people, none of whom, he was prepared to wager, had ever read a single one of his books."

In the novel's final pages, Arthur has matured into a convinced spiritualist, to the dismay of most of his admirers then and now. Yet Barnes's novel allows us to better understand why and how this may have come about. Still, I like best George's simple and down-to-earth -- indeed, rather English -- view of religion: "He went to church because it gave Maud pleasure that he did so. As far as the afterlife went, he thought he would wait and see." ยท

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.


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