The old man’s mind

CHABON — The Final Solution

Hello, occasionally Sherlockian Ether. I am pleased to announced that my first foray into post-canon reading was a blubbery success: I’ve read Michael Chabon’s pastiche on Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution, and absolutely loved it. Pleased, and rather relieved; Chabon and I haven’t really gotten along in the past, and since this book set the tone for the inevitable pastiche-bingeing, it was absolutely imperative that I liked it. No pressure and all that, yadda and yadda.

It was, I think, a nice book to read in transition from the canon, to whatever reading I feel like doing next—either a reread of Doyle, or a digging up of other pastiches that place their stories firmly as career stories. Mostly because it’s a nice nod to my having ended that first run through the canon—it’s a tidy novella about a Sherlock Holmes old and retired and, in fact, only alluded to. The old man in The Final Solution is never named—he’s simply a hermit who lives at the edge of town with his bees, and the townspeople remember talk about what a great detective he was and the policeman heard the stories about him from their fathers—but no one ever really got to witness his work; no one in that town knew firsthand what a keen mind he had. When the police enlist his help to solve a local murder—nothing particularly befuddling, mind you—the old man accepts, and insists it’s just to locate a parrot.

Right. Old, grumpy men get me every time. In The Final Solution, the old, grumpy beekeeper has as his “client” a nine-year-old refugee, mute and scrappy—it’s for him that the old man slinks out of his cottage: his companion the-parrot-that-spews-German has gone missing after the murder at his foster parents’ house. It’s a neat little mystery, compelling for its shameless emotional manipulation—which I totally buy—but what made the novella succeed for me is its study of the old man.

Particularly: An old man who once was great, who in his prime possessed one of the sharpest minds in England. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s preface to the last collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, he bade his character to “go the way of all flesh,” and Chabon honors the mythos by exploring that. By exploring what it means to be a man whose foremost quality had to succumb, naturally and inexorably, to age.

He felt—with 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. Time had bleached away the ornate pattern of his intellect, leaving a blank white scrap.

Chabon never took me to the dark place, but he damn well nearly pushed me into it. The angst is never dwelt on—and for every moment that the old man’s railing (or, more devastatingly, quiet resignation like the one above) about how his mind isn’t what it used to be, there are moments of re-discovery: “For the first time in a very many years, he felt the old vexation, the mingled impatience and pleasure at the world’s beautiful refusal to yield up its mysteries without a fight.” And—

A delicate, inexorable lattice of inferences began to assemble themselves, like 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.

And it was beautiful to me because each of those moments meant not just an insight or an advance through the case—it’s an old Sherlock Holmes reacquainting himself with his great, great mind. And because it’s harder to reach for, the old man, too, marvels at the turnings of his mind, not unlike the way we do. It’s always a toss-up re who’s more happier for whenever the worlds reveal itself and all its intricacy to him once again. I just bawled most of the time.

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5 comments

  1. Jennifer · · Reply

    Man oh man. I feel torn about wanting to read this book. On the one hand, it sounds fascinating what with an aging Sherlock reacquainting himself, as you said, with his brilliant mind. But ugh, I don’t think my heart can take it. D:

    1. The farther away from the Chabon I get, the more certain I am that it was the right book to read right after the canon. If I’d just jumped into the pastiches with him still going around solving crimes, at the height of his career, ending-the-canon wouldn’t feel so bittersweet. Haha, yes, I’m trying to get as much emotional mileage from Sherlock as I can!

  2. I’m tempted, although I felt very meh towards only Chabon I’ve read – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Are you planning to read the oh-so-loved The Beekeper’s Apprentice during your pastiche-bingeing?

    1. I’ve been very meh towards Chabon—I read the Wonder something or the other, and can’t start on his Kavalier book? (I can’t even remember the titles, ahahaha. But this is very un-Chabon; if only because it really had me reading. It’s the Sherlock pull, I’m sure.

      Your review of The Beekeper’s Apprentice—first saw it on Goodreads—made me avoid that book, so thank you. Thought of hate-reading it, haha, so maybe sometime in the future?

  3. […] was gathering the books above for this post, and wondered at each of them. I read the Michael Chabon just four weeks ago? Didn’t I give up (with differing degrees of frustrated glee) on Herman […]

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