Michael Chabon is that rarity amongst contemporary writers – a literary heavyweight with a sure touch when it comes to tapping into popular culture. He is not only the author of such esteemed novels as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys but also wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster movie Spiderman 2. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay he provides a fascinating look at both the rise of the superhero comic in America and its broader cultural roots in the immigrant experience. With The Final Solution, Chabon takes an oblique look at that greatest of crime fiction icons, Sherlock Holmes – or does he?
“If we should encounter the actual murderer along the way, well, then it will be so much the better for you.”
It is 1944 and in Sussex a mute German refugee named Linus becomes involved with spies and murder while searching for his best friend Bruno – an African grey parrot who seems to do the talking for both of them. In particular, he is given to repeating a string of numbers and part of the mystery is in trying to understand what they may refer to. Bruno is presumably descended from that avian literary heritage that also gave us Ray Bradbury’s story of Papa Hemingway’s companion and Julian Barnes’ postmodern look at Flaubert’s feathered friend, acting as both a Hitchcockian MacGuffin to keep the plot turning over but also as a symbol of the Jewish diaspora. The bird has a gift for mimicry and for retaining important bits of information and was part of a family protected by a high-ranking Nazi officer who used the boy’s father as his personal physician; now he is all that remains of Linus’ family and has knowledge that potentially may hold the key to winning the War.
This bizarre set of circumstances set the stage for a once celebrated detective, now 89-years old, to be coaxed back to undertake perhaps his last hurrah thirty years after he retired to take up bee-keeping … he is never named, but we are meant to believe that he is in fact Sherlock Holmes. He is brought in by the local inspector – whose grandfather once worked with the Great Detective – when the body of Richard Shane is found outside of the house of Mr and Mrs Panicker, where he and boy had their lodgings. The parrot has gone missing and the Panicker’s querulous and deeply unpleasant son Reggie, who planned to steal the precious talking parrot to clear his debts with a local gangster, is arrested for having bashed in Shane’s head with a blunt instrument.
The conquest of his mind by age was not a mere blunting or slowing down but an erasure, as of a desert capital by a drifting millennium of sand. Time had bleached away the ornate pattern of his intellect, leaving a blank white scrap.
First published in 2005 and subtitled ‘A Story of Detection’, this brief novel (my hardback edition is 127 pages long) proves to have less in common with Conan Doyle’s great detective and perhaps rather more with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) in its use of narrators who cannot properly explain the world in which they travel. The title, given its setting during the Second World War, has several meanings beyond the reference to the investigation by the near-nonanegarian detective, referring also to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. That this is a book with more than a simple story to tell is emphasised by a penultimate chapter narrated by Bruno to provide a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity and darker intimations of what the numbers might actually refer to. Harper Collins have published a reader’s guide to the book on their website which you can find here. I am not necessarily a big follower of such things and am always a little dismayed by some of the spoon-feeding implicit when such items are added to the end of books for reading clubs. But it is clearly a useful idea and this one seems to have been put together with some care so I am happy to draw attention to it.
This is a small book which, though attractively illustrated by Jay Ryan, is not really suitable as a bedtime story despite what at least one reviewer has suggested. The plot could easily have been used for one of the Basil Rathbone Holmes adventures made circa 1944 but the strength of this work does not lie in the unravelling of the plot – rather it is about the limits of that process at a time when murder, at a time when it was being conducted on an industrial scale, seems beyond rational understanding. It provides a fascinating portrait of a great detective on his final case, exploring how times have changed and just how such a character might think about their own legacy, and links this to a time and a people swept away by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Despite its Sherlockian connections and links, this isn’t really a pastiche as such though its plot is fairly and neatly worked out (but won’t give addicts of the genre much meat to chew on). As a character study and as an evocation of a time and place it is proves highly satisfying, dealing with major themes that still resonate today. Told with Chabon’s consummate skill as a wordsmith, it offers in reduced form many of the same pleasures to be found in the author’s deeper and more expansive works.