The Short Version: An old man, once a famous detective, has retired to keeping bees in the English countryside. When a young mute German boy arrives in town – accompanied by an African gray parrot – the old man must once more apply his powers of deduction to determine what happened to the boy, what the parrot’s reciting strings of numbers could mean, and who might have interest in taking the bird for themselves…
The Review: In an odd bit of cosmic timing, The Final Solution was the last thing I read on my vacation this summer – and, on my flight out for vacation, I watched the recent film Mr. Holmes. It’s serendipitous, of course, because both tales involve an aging Sherlock Holmes out on the Sussex Downs in his retirement, keeping bees and generally not bothering anybody. Their circumstances are different in several ways – Holmes’ age, during versus after the war, the story directly calling him Holmes versus calling him “the old man” – but they share one very important trait: they humanize one of the most inscrutable figures in all of fiction.
One of the strongest moments in Chabon’s short novella is just such a humanizing moment, showing Holmes’ horror at the encroaching endgame: “He felt – with all his body, as one felt the force of gravity or inertia – the inevitability of his failure. 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.” Holmes is one of those figures that we, as a culture, cannot let go of – as long as people are writing, there will be additional stories added to the Holmesian canon; the latest casefile of Watson’s to be ‘discovered’ and so on – but, of late, I’ve noticed an increase in stories of Holmes later in life. The Mary Russell novels, of course, are perhaps the most ‘famous’ of these tales, but A Slight Trick of the Mind (which inspired Mr. Holmes) and Chabon’s story are just some of the tales that ponder the idea of what age might do to a mind and body like Holmes. He is, in so many ways, a nearly superhuman figure, especially in fiction, where his impossible gifts (and, okay, yes, sometimes some cocaine) always help him solve the mystery – so what about the one challenge no person, no matter how incredible, can defeat?
But even age is not enough to slow Holmes down, not really. The mind, even as it fades and rots, still retains some of its processing power and even though Holmes is never mentioned by name in Chabon’s prose, by the end it is inescapable. He’s written Holmes in the way that only a true lover of Doyle’s creation could do: honestly. The impatience is there, the gleam of the eye, the ability to notice things that others might’ve missed. One of the loveliest embellishments is Holmes’ interactions with the constabulary – all of whom are the descendents of the Scotland Yard men that Holmes both infuriated and impressed when he was in his prime. For Holmes to be solving one last case alongside the grandson of a man who cursed him and envied him – and for that grandson to be conscious of that sort of legendary status standing and breathing right before him… it’s a side of Holmes I’ve never seen. In his prime, those interactions existed of course, and we saw plenty of them – but it takes on a different form when Holmes is past his prime and yet still retains that aura of legend. As though the legend, perhaps, has remained young and so burnishes him with a bit of unfair longevity – even as Holmes is well aware that the man of the stories is no longer truly extant.
The case itself is a curious one and, as with many great mysteries, really two-fold. The case, as it were, is the disappearance of this parrot – a parrot who largely speaks in strings of German numbers. It’s 1944, so World War II is still raging and the British government, of course, is interested in anything that might help to break the back of the Axis – and so the second level of the case (and the one that Chabon is more interested in) is what the numbers mean and how the parrot and boy are connected. The boy, nine years old and mute, has clearly seen horrors – and the parrot, too. In the sort of moment that’s rightly regarded as virtuosic but that’s also perhaps a little silly in context, Chabon writes a chapter from the perspective of the parrot – which reveals, indeed, that he was held captive by the Nazis and, if you have even the slightest memory of your European History class, you can figure out what the numbers mean.
This happens before the end of the novella, too, so the story ends up being not so much about the case in any sense as it is about contextualizing Holmes in the face of a changing world. To know that these numbers relate to the death trains and to their human cargo… we, the readers, know that but the characters of the novel don’t. Because they can’t. Because at this point in time, they couldn’t. The end of the novel, more than anything, made me long for a mind like Holmes’ who could rationalize and battle back the insanity of the war – and of everything that followed. But this story reminds us that even legends must pass on into memory – and that the world often changes too much for our past heroes to’ve survived anyway.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. A speedy and lovely diversion, great for vacation reading. There are some delightful illustrations peppered throughout that give this book the feeling of being a kind of “kids book for adults” and I mean that in the best possible way. Chabon has captured the essence of Holmes, especially Holmes at the end of his life, while also contextualizing the changing world – the world leaving Holmes and his ilk behind, being born out of the bloody carnage of that horrible war. But more than anything, it’s a great novelist at the top of his game paying homage to the stories that made him both a reader and a writer. And what’s more fun than that?