A NOVEL based on the true story of Arthur Conan Doyle's campaign to overturn a miscarriage of justice last night emerged as the favourite to win this year's Man Booker Prize.
But although Julian Barnes's Arthur and George is on the shortlist, announced yesterday, for the premier award in British fiction, there was widespread surprise that it was not joined by two other hotly-tipped novels - Salman Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown and Ian McEwan's Saturday.
"I'm flabbergasted that the Rushdie wasn't on the list," said Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which last month hosted events starring five of the six authors shortlisted for the 50,000 prize.
"Shalimar the Clown has a richness, depth and an ambition, and a huge political and emotional punch," she said. "Its sheer ambition and appetite is actually a very unusual thing in the English novel, where we're more used to miniaturists."
Earlier this year, McEwan's Saturday, which was almost universally praised by reviewers, had emerged as the front- runner for this year's prize.
Like Rushdie's novel, it had a contemporary setting and dealt with one of the central issues of the day - how our everyday lives are increasingly overshadowed by the threat of violence and terrorism.
Of the six novels that actually made the shortlist, only two - both by women - are set in a vaguely recognisable present. Zadie Smith's On Beauty is a dazzling comedy of liberal manners with a cast from both sides of the Atlantic, deft plotting and pitch-perfect dialogue.
The Accidental, by Inverness-born Ali Smith, the sole Scot on the shortlist, is the least traditional novel of the six. Although it, too, deals with the family of a trendy academic, its handling of them is altogether different and more quirkily imaginative. The one character who disturbs the family's ordered way of life is as much a symbol of imagination as an actual character.
Last night, Smith said she was "genuinely amazed" to be shortlisted. "I really thought Rushdie and McEwan would be on the list and that [longlisted Scottish novelist] James Meek would win for his amazing The People's Act of Love. It just shows what a lottery these things are."
Kasuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, ostensibly set in the late 1990s, is in reality set in an altogether more alarming age, when the consequences of human cloning are becoming frighteningly apparent.
But in opting for novels set firmly in the past, the judges are not turning their backs on quality. In every way, this year's crop of British and Irish writing is a vintage one.
Julian Barnes has been shortlisted for the Booker before - in 1984 for Flaubert's Parrot and in 1998 for England, England - but Arthur and George is a compelling read. For utterly absorbing characterisation, and the way it unravels a fascinating legal case, swaying the reader's sympathies from one side to the other, this will be hard to beat.
John Banville and Sebastian Barry, both Irish, are the only non-British writers on the shortlist.
Banville's The Sea, mostly set in the Ireland of the Fifties, is a novel in which, as our reviewer Allan Massie pointed out, "all his remarkable gifts come together to produce a real work of art."
But watch out too for Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way. His event with Ali Smith was one of the highlights of this year's Book Festival. "He might not be so well known here," says Ms Lockerbie, "but this will give more people the chance to see just how good he really is."
The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced in a televised ceremony in London, on 10 October.
STRONG STORYLINES FROM CONTENDERS
The Sea, by John Banville
Max Morden, mourning the death of his wife, returns to the Irish seaside town where he spent a childhood summer and where he now confronts memories which have haunted him since.
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes
Arthur Conan Doyle tries to free half-Indian solicitor George Edjali, wrongly jailed in 1903 for mutilating horses. Brilliantly-told story .
A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry
It's 1914, and 18-year-old Willie Dunne leaves Dublin to fight in Flanders. The Easter Rising two years later makes him question his loyalties.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Three children are pupils at what sounds like an idyllic establishment deep in the English countryside. Their happy lives turn out to be anything but what they seem.
The Accidental, by Ali Smith
The Smart family are spending their summer in Norfolk when the mysterious Amber comes to stay.
At first she bewitches them all but has soon turned their world upside down. Structurally, by far the most radical novel on the list.
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith.
In this homage to EM Forster's Howards End, Smith has placed the work in a contemporary setting, swapping turn-of-the-century England for a university campus in the United States. Her story concerns two rival academics and the tangled relations between their families.