An encore for Sherlock Holmes
Considering its relatively slim profile, there's an awful lot packed into Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon's latest novel, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. Though on the surface it's a lighthearted, old-fashioned mystery, the thrill of solving puzzles is the least of its many themes. There's also the importance and the difficulty of navigating old age with grace and dignity. There's the courageous spirit with which people not only endure but progress during wartime. And there are the dark shadows of the Holocaust and the horror of casual racism creeping in from the periphery. Perhaps most striking about the novel, though, is the author's pure, exuberant delight in language. The story begins in 1940s England, where an 89-year-old man who is never named but is clearly English literature's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, has now retired and devoted himself to beekeeping. The passages in which the old man battles his own increasing decrepitude are among the book's most poignant, his narrative voice suffused with knowing humor and strength but laced with an inevitable edge of fear. Still, when he spies through his window a nine-year-old boy with a German-speaking African gray parrot on his shoulder, the old man springs to his feet with alacrity. The boy turns out to be a Jewish refugee, apparently mute, who is both a puzzle and the primary clue to the book's ever-deepening mystery. He lives at a nearby boarding house, with the parrot as his only friend and constant companion. When another guest at the boarding house is found dead with his head bashed in, and the boy's parrot vanishes at the same time, local police are stumped. They try to recruit the old man, but he refuses to help solve the murder, which he deems unremarkable. Instead, he puts his brilliant but admittedly rusty powers of deduction to work tracking down the boy's missing parrot. Though finding a little boy's pet bird seems a simple enough case for the world's greatest detective, there are elements of this mystery that remain well beyond the grasp of the old man. To solve them would be to understand the nature of evil, which is asking a lot, even of Sherlock Holmes. Still, though the novel is tinged with the sadness that shaped the 20th century, the real mystery is how Chabon managed to fit so much hope and humanity into such a brief tale. Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.