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The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
Michael Chabon
Harper, 2004
144 pp., 16.95

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John Utz

The Game Is Afoot

Sherlock Holmes returns—again.

To a degree perhaps unmatched by any other fictional character, Sherlock Holmes continues to capture our imagination. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 56 short stories and four novellas featuring Holmes have never been out of print and continue to sell in countless editions. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2, released last year, distills and applies Sherlockian scholarship to the short stories with all the seriousness of an annotated Bible. (A third volume, with the novels, is forthcoming.) And this is just to mention Doyle's original tales. Even before Doyle put down his pen in 1927, an army of Holmes imitators arose, including such execrable upstarts as Picklock Holes, Hemlock Jones, Holmlock Shears, and Sherlaw Kombs.

The most popular Baker Street spinoffs are the pastiches in which Holmes himself appears as protagonist. Many a mystery writer has tossed off a Holmes story in affectionate homage or parody or both. The latterday vogue for the novel-length pastiche began with Nicholas Meyer's 1974 bestseller The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. Also notable in this vein is Laurie King's popular series about Mary Russell, a prodigious young woman who apprentices herself to Holmes and eventually marries him, despite being forty years his junior. In their latest adventure, Locked Rooms, just published, Holmes and Russell travel to San Francisco, where they encounter Dashiell Hammett. And new entries keep coming: Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind and Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary also appeared earlier this year.

Even given this cultural obsession with the great detective, it might come as something of a surprise that the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction would write a novella with Sherlock Holmes as its protagonist. Writers of serious literature rarely risk forays into genre fiction, let alone derivative genre fiction. But in Michael Chabon's hands, a Sherlock Holmes story becomes an opportunity for much deeper reflection—on the profound human needs that drive us to detective fiction in the first place, and the real problems that lie outside our powers of comprehension.

Chabon is a tremendously gifted writer. He combines an unapologetically lyrical prose style with acute observations and uncannily apt figures of speech. Every page he writes contains memorable turns of phrase that are at once delightfully imaginative and so deadly accurate that they seem to have been inevitable. Yet, for all his intelligence and imagination, he is not a typical literary novelist. He has made no effort to hide his love for popular arts, particularly comic books and old-fashioned "adventure" stories—indeed, he lent a hand to the screenplay for Spider-Man 2 and edited McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales in 2003. And the first novel he published after winning the Pulitzer was an outlandish fantasy for children, called Summerland.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the sprawling epic for which he won the Pulitzer, has comic books at its heart. In it, two young Jewish men, one from Brooklyn and the other his cousin, who has recently fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, invent a comic book hero called the Escapist. In the days before Pearl Harbor, the Escapist wages a kind of proxy battle against the Axis powers, delivering an "immortal haymaker" to the jaw of Adolf Hitler. But for Josef Kavalier, the artist who has left his family behind in Prague, the joys of such symbolic action against the Nazis soon seem hollow:

The surge of triumph he felt when he finished a story was always fleeting, and seemed to grow briefer with every job. This time it had lasted about a minute and a half before turning to shame and frustration. The Escapist was an impossible champion, ludicrous and above all imaginary, fighting a war that could never be won.

Kavalier & Clay is about a great many things, but it is Chabon's daring admission of the limits of art as symbolic action—in the midst of a passionate celebration of the comics and, by extension, of art more generally—that gives that book real significance. This complex gesture of simultaneous celebration and apology is repeated in Chabon's latest work, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. The book's title echoes the famous Holmes story, "The Final Problem" (in which Doyle killed off his fictional creation, only to be forced by popular clamor to resurrect him nine years later), but it also clearly refers to the Third Reich's genocidal plan of the same name. But if The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay pitted popular arts against political action, The Final Solution, though more concise, aims at something greater. Chabon pays his dues to the mystery genre, but he is also concerned with mystery itself, and the meanings that we project against it.

The book takes place in England in 1943, where we find the elderly Holmes cultivating honey bees in the bucolic Sussex countryside. His idyll is disturbed when he observes a boy walking along the railroad tracks on the perimeter of his property with an African parrot perched on his shoulder. Because Holmes fears that the boy may electrocute himself on the third rail, he races from his house to intercede, but he fails to elicit an answer from the boy. We soon learn that young Linus Steinman is a Jewish orphan recently placed with an English family, the parrot his only connection to the past. The trauma that Linus has undergone has seemingly rendered him mute, but the parrot speaks in his stead, voicing endless German lieder and, more provocatively, strings of numbers.

Chabon doesn't adhere strictly to the classic Sherlock Holmes formula. Whereas Doyle's tales were consistently narrated by Watson, the very model of Victorian rectitude, Chabon doesn't allow us such stable footing. Here the setting and perspective shift from chapter to chapter, and though most of the narration favors the perspective of "the old man" (Chabon never refers to him by name, but his identity is clear), there are also four chapters told from the perspective of other characters, including one that divulges the thoughts of the parrot. Moreover, the crime isn't presented as a straight-forward puzzle for Holmes to solve. Indeed, Holmes does not agree with the local authorities on what the mystery actually is. We learn off-handedly in the third chapter that one of the characters we have just met has been "struck in the back of the head with a blunt object," but Holmes isn't much interested in this case. Instead, he is troubled that the boy's parrot has gone missing in the process. He will aid the authorities "To find the boy's parrot. … If we should encounter the actual murderer along the way, well, then it will be so much the better for you."

Though Holmes pretends to be reluctant about playing the game one last time, he is clearly more alive when conducting this investigation than he was making honey. Though he fears dying in a meaningless or absurd manner, he is pleased by the idea of expiring in the midst of an investigation—"to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue." Chabon hints here that Holmes should be taken not merely as a representative of the mystery genre but, more abstractly, as a figure for the human need for comprehension, for answers. For what is Sherlock Holmes but an engine for the making of meaning itself, the fashioning together out of disparate bits of seemingly meaningless ephemera an answer, an end to mystery? In typically beautiful prose, Chabon proffers this description of the process:

A delicate, inexorable lattice of inferences began to assemble themselves, like a crystal, in the old man's mind, shivering, catching the light in glints and surmises. It was the deepest pleasure life could afford, this deductive crystallization, this paroxysm of guesswork, and one that he had lived without for a terribly long time.

Over the course of his investigation, the old man enjoys such pleasures several times, and in the end order has been restored. But the great detective is left troubled by some key questions that go unanswered:

One might conclude … that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems—the false leads and cold cases—that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot.

The question, of course, is whether there is an intrinsic sense to that chatter, and if so, what does it signify? Although The Final Solution involves a murder, and the uncanny boy and his parrot hold our attention until the final page, the real mystery that underlies the book is less about machinations of plot than the limits of human understanding, and our deeply held desire that our efforts at comprehension will win the day against meaninglessness. In the end, Chabon has crafted a gem that satisfies on many levels, embedding within a conventional mystery story a profound reminder of the depths to which mystery can reach.

John Utz teaches literature and writing at Duke Divinity School.

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