The Final Solution

by Michael Chabon

Published by HarperCollins

131 pages, 2004




The Adventure of the Rejuvenated Sherlock Holmes

Reviewed by David Abrams


Once upon a time, Sherlock Holmes died and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought he could live happily ever after writing stories which didn't feature the Great Detective. Wearying of his cranial creation, Doyle wrote what he thought would be the last of his Sherlock Holmes stories in 1893 -- "The Final Problem" -- in which Holmes and arch-nemesis Professor Moriarity wrestled at the edge of Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps and eventually plunged to their deaths.

However, by that point, the game was too far afoot and outraged readers, fueled by a particularly fanatic sorrow, demanded that Doyle bring Holmes back to life. In 1901, Doyle was obliged to write The Hound of the Baskervilles ... and nearly three dozen other Holmes stories for the next 20 years. Since Doyle's death in 1930, the 221B Baker Street gristmill has continued to churn out variations of the character. In fact, Sherlock Holmes has become so popular, the industry surrounding the deerstalkered one is the literary equivalent of the Star Wars phenomenon (yes, there's even an action figure).

If you're a dedicated Doyle-head, all this comes as no surprise. But here's some fresh news: Sherlock Holmes is very much alive and well, thanks to Michael Chabon. In his newest novel, The Final Solution, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, brings an aging, decrepit Holmes back for one more case: to discover the whereabouts of a missing parrot and solve a gruesome murder connected to that birdnapping. Set in 1944, The Final Solution never identifies Holmes by name (the character is simply "the old man"), but there's little doubt of the elderly gentleman's identity. All the elementary clues are there in plain view, starting with Chabon's nod to Doyle on the acknowledgments page and continuing with the man's retirement hobby of beekeeping and a mention of his old doctor friend (Watson does not make an appearance on these pages, nor do Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson the housekeeper, or the Baker Street Irregulars).

By keeping Holmes' name off the page, Chabon lends the story an elegant, elegiac atmosphere -- repetition of "the old man" reminds us that these are the detective's twilight years -- but he could also be distancing himself from all those schlocky Sherlock pastiches which began cropping up like weeds even before Doyle's death. Over the years, whole bookshelves have been filled with imitators attempting to cash in on Holmes' popularity. We've had The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes and The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes; we've suffered through Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, most of them starting out with prefaces explaining how the manuscript was discovered in a dusty safe-deposit box or a battered old trunk in the attic of a house once belonging to Dr. John Watson. Then, too, there have been the more straight-faced revisions of the Holmes saga: August Derleth's Solar Pons mysteries, Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Percent Solution and Laurie King's recent series starting with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

Chabon's entry onto that already groaning bookshelf is a welcome addition -- in part because it doesn't rely on a gimmick like Holmes having a showdown with Jack the Ripper, but also because it's much more than just another locked-room mystery. The Final Solution is as much about how we live and die as it is how we solve the tedious little mysteries along the way.

As the book opens, Holmes -- er, "the old man" -- is reading the latest edition of The British Bee Journal when he sees a young boy walking along the railroad tracks with an African gray parrot on his shoulder. The old man stops the boy from falling onto the electrified tracks, but the boy says nothing to him. Instead, the parrot rattles off a series of numbers in German "in a soft, oddly breathy voice, with the slightest hint of a lisp."

The bird is named Bruno and we later learn he can recite poetry and sing German opera ("though from time to time one hears snatches of Gilbert & Sullivan"), as well as repeating that string of mysterious numbers. He belongs to the boy, a mute Jewish orphan who has come to England from Germany, where his parents have apparently been killed in a concentration camp. Young Linus is described as "a quiet nine-year-old boy whose face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows." As he did in Kavalier and Clay, Chabon tenderly captures the sorrow and the horror of Hitler's own "final solution" and it's this haunting layer which gives the novel a bedrock of deeper meaning which we wouldn't find in, say, Sherlock Holmes and the Titanic Tragedy: A Case to Remember.

Of course, there's the mystery plot which drives the story forward across the surface of the book: a lodger at the boarding house where Linus lives is found with his head bashed in, Bruno goes missing and the baffled police call the old man in on the case. As he sifts the clues and uses his cunning powers of observation, the detective feels the tired muscles of his brain stretching and coming back to life: "It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue."

Chabon loads the story with some great character names: Detective Inspector Bellows, Constable Quint and Mr. and Mrs. Panicker. But it's the unnamed character at the center of The Final Solution who commands our attention. The 89-year-old beekeeper with the "breaking-down brain" finds himself rousing as he's given one more opportunity to exercise his little gray cells in the adventure of the kidnapped parrot. It's a triumphant resurrection for Chabon, too, as he brings our most cherished detective back to life on the page.

It's all done in a faux Victorian style of writing where the sentences are labyrinthine, full of dodges and comma-induced detours. At times, they impede the flow of narrative and we struggle to parse through the phrases; but at others, they act as catalysts in a swelling crescendo of literary beauty, reminding us that there was once such a thing as writers who truly cared about the intricacies of language. Here, I'm not necessarily thinking of Doyle, who was concerned with plot more than style, but of masters like Henry James, Joseph Conrad and others who closed out the 19th century with a flourish. Chabon has paid attention to these teachers and repeats their lessons with an energetic verve. Every so often, he pops in a zinger of a sentence -- like, "the man who smelled of boiled bird-flesh was going mad" -- that makes us sit up straight and beg for more.

The author even turns a quaint narrative trick -- an entire chapter told from the parrot's perspective -- into an elegant, nay moving, commentary on man's inhumanity. In the hands of another writer, this literally bird-brained section could have collapsed the book into an absurd mess. Chabon is nothing if not confident. His words march strongly across the page in neat formations -- nothing sloppy, nothing wasted, nothing out of step.

In "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone," Holmes once said, "I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix." Here, in Chabon's slim (131 all-too-short pages) addition to the Sherlockian bookshelf, we get a finer appendix than we could have ever hoped for. Chabon has taken Doyle's "Final Problem" and given us a "Final Solution." This will probably not be the last we ever hear of Sherlock (indeed, I hope Chabon brings his "old man" back for encore performances), but it is a way to close out Holmes' adventurous career on a wistful, beautiful postscript. | November 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.