Long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle allowed him to retire to Sussex to take up beekeeping, there seems to be no end of enthusiasm for imagined versions of the life of Sherlock Holmes. There was Michael Chabon's The Final Solution
in which "the old man," an 89-year-old beekeeper in Sussex is undoubtedly Holmes. Laurie King
, a fine mystery writer, has appropriated Holmes and created a romance between him and young Mary Russell which has lasted through several enjoyable books. And now, nonagenarian Holmes reappears, most appealingly, in Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind.
He is frail and forgetful but still observant and capable of shining the bright light of his insight and brilliance on events both past and present.
Cullin has carefully woven three stories together and managed it so neatly that no threads show--worthy of Holmes himself. The first is the story of Holmes's recent return from a trip to Japan, ostensibly in search of prickly ash, a bush that he believes contributes to healthy longevity, as does his beloved and trusted royal jelly. While there, he is met by his correspondent, Mr. Umezaki, who isn't as interested in prickly ash as in gleaning information from Holmes about his long-gone father. Supposedly, they met many years before, in London, and Holmes advised him not to return home. Of course, Holmes has no recollection of the meeting but finesses it nicely.
It is 1947 when they visit Hiroshima, post-atomic bomb, and Holmes marvels at what he sees. He compares it, most poignantly, to the loss of the queen in a hive, "when no resources were available to raise a new one. Yet how could he explain the deeper illness of unexpressed desolation, that imprecise pall harbored en masse by ordinary Japanese?" That is what he tells Roger, the 14-year-old son of his housekeeper. Roger is the second thread of the novel. Holmes is introducing him to beekeeping and Roger proves an apt student. His hero-worship of Holmes and his need for a father form an integral part of Cullin's intention of "humanizing" the great Sherlock Holmes.
The final thread is revealed in a journal that Holmes kept, in which he entered an encounter with a married woman, many years ago. He is infatuated with her, and hardly knows what to call it or what to make of his feelings. This is unfamiliar territory for the man who is rational above all else. The man we know at the end of the book makes the reader want another installment, showing a new Sherlock with a heart as well as a brain. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The Sherlock Holmes pastiche is a time-honored tradition, though most attempts are interesting primarily to Sherlockians who pick them apart, searching for mistakes. But Cullin (Branches
; etc.) has produced an ambitious, beautifully written novel that examines an enfeebled but still intellectually curious Holmes as he copes with the indignities of old age. It's just after the end of WWII: Holmes's brilliant brother Mycroft is dead, as is Watson ("You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John"). Now 93, the great detective has been retired for decades; he spends his days immersed in his lifelong passion, beekeeping, and in writing various articles and letters. One of his projects is an account of a case concerning a mysterious young woman who played the glass armonica. Holmes will complete the manuscript by the book's end, and the fascinating result will explain something of his peculiar character. Cullin gives Holmes a companion in his housekeeper's young son, Roger; their close relationship is a great solace to the prickly and famously solitary old man. It is this elucidation of Holmes's "true" character that is the purpose of Cullin's story. This look at Holmes near his natural death is a delight and a deeply satisfying read—more so than Michael Chabon's recent The Final Solution
, which also features a nonagenarian Holmes. (Apr. 26)
Forecast: Cullin's work is hard to pigeonhole—Texas noir (
Branches), coming-of-age novel (
Whompyjawed), academic satire (
The Cosmology of Bing)—but his talent is undeniable. This sophisticated spin on Doyle's perennially popular detective could take him up a notch recognition-wise.
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