NICHOLAS MEYER's new novel is a charming picaresque, the odyssey of an orphaned child from the custody of his Uncle Fritz, a sometime composer, libertine and con man living in Paris, to the care of his aunt and other uncle, a high-strung, childless and "progressive" pair in Chicago -- and back again.

Though this tale is set in Meyer's own lifetime, it is deliberately old-fashioned in style and sentiment. This is a continuing fondness of the author, who is best known for the two "unearthed" Sherlock Holmes adventures he concocted and published in the mid-1970s (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror ).

George Bernini, "the half-Italian, half-Irish, half-Jewish, half-Catholic child of dead circus acrobats" is an innocent in the Dickensian mode, which is to say that nothing goes by him. He is worldly beyond his years, thanks to his bohemian apprenticeship under Fritz, and accordingly constrained by the proper life his well-meaning Chicago guardians press upon him. Savoring a reunion with Fritz, George plots his escape from Chicago and at last breaks away for Paris. His passage by rail and by ship, by hook and by crook, culminates in a rather obligatory but still delightful sexual initiation in a stateroom aboard the Queen Mary. What he finds at his destination is sad, yet fulfilling even so -- much like the novel itself. And if I am not mistaken, there is the promise of a sequel.