The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

“It was midsummer, and there was something about the black hair and pale face of the boy against the green unfurling flag of the downs beyond, the rolling white eye of the daisy, the knobby knees in their short pants, the self important air of the handsome gray parrot with its savage red tail feather, that charmed the old man as he watched them go by.”

An early and well crafted sentence in Michael Chabon’s novella of a few years back, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. Let’s call this a mystery novel, but let’s be sure to note that is almost transcends the genre even as it makes loving use of one of the most famous components of it.

The story is set in England in 1944. A refugee child and his parrot are at the center of the mystery, and the 89-year-old detective is none other than the Great Detective. Though he is referred to throughout only as “the old man” and given no name otherwise, we understand him to be Sherlock Holmes himself, drawn out of his beekeeping retirement and looming mental eclipse by the lure of one last case.

The refugee boy is mute (it seems), but his parrot chatters with a continuing though varying string of numbers, spoken in German. Are these keys to breaking an important code? Are they access numbers of Swiss bank accounts? Given what we learn of the boy’s background, these are plausible. Someone clearly thinks they are important because the bird is stolen, and a man is murdered in the process.

The old man is motivated by a dawning affection for the boy, and though this is not altogether in keeping with the character as he was originally portrayed, no man in the twilight of his life is the same person he was in the vigor of his manhood. Chabon understands this and paints the old man with an affectionate brush, showing him fearful that a simple fall could mean his end (a fall far less dramatic than one from Reichenbach but no less serious), railing at the fading of his once prodigious faculties, alone and misremembered with only his bees to keep his company and his mind.

As a mystery, this isn’t so much. At times it seems that the plot is only there in order to hang the character on. The tying of the story to Hitler and the Holocaust gives it a substance, and the delicious sentences and phrasings throughout recall writing of a more lush age, fitting for such a character. Chabon includes a credible character who suffers from dyslexia — the mute boy, though he is too young to realize he is suffering with it — and it is the dyslexia that leads to the solution of the mystery. (I listened to a recording of this novel and completely missed that clue. Had I read words on paper, I wonder if I might have spotted it.)

The title is a multi-layered play with words. There is, of course, Hitler’s vile Final Solution. But Chabon also considers what was to be the final Holmes’ story, “His Final Bow,” as well as Holmes’ early addiction to a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine.

I didn’t care for an entire chapter narrated from the parrot’s point of view. It seemed contrived and pointless, unless its intent was to illustrate human inhumanity to animals. It may also be that one can figure out the meaning of the mysterious numbers the parrot recites from a careful reading of this chapter. I’ll leave that to you.

I knew of this novella when it first came out, but I avoided it because I thought (and mostly still do think) that the canon is sufficient and complete; any meddling will only soil it. I’ve found that most writers who hijack any established literary character really mess it all up, not having the mind of the age or the insight of the original author. Most Sherlock Holmes stories of recent years have been just dreadful. The writers intend to continue the stories, as though one could “continue” painting Michelangelo’s work or “continue” writing Mozart’s symphonies. Chabon’s contribution is different. He is writing with gratitude and respect, not with an intent to supplement or capitalize. I think he achieves it.

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