Wednesday, 23 March 2005

The Final Solution

Read a great book the other day – here's my review …

Come, friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act.


Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon has enough credibility not to have to worry about being branded an author of fan-fiction as his latest novella brings the greatest literary detective back to the page.  Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle's classic sleuth is alive and, if not well, still in possession of a deductive powers beyond that of mortal men.


Despite not being mentioned by name the identity of the hero of 'The Final Solution' soon becomes obvious.  References to his talent and his past adventures are subtle but obvious to a fan of AC Doyle's work (or anybody who's knows the Holmes reputation).  The famous pipe and magnifying glass are still in use and it is not hard to picture an old version of Basil Rathbone or Christopher Lee playing the detective as he potters away his final days as a beekeeper (as Doyle had always intended).  He is still revered by Scotland Yard although to his neighbours he just a crazy old man with a bad hip who nobody feels very comfortable being around. 


The 'old man' (the only name that Chabon gives his hero) is dragged out of retirement by the discovery of a mute Jewish boy who is in possession of a grey African parrot that is prone to reciting strings of numbers in German.  The mystery deepens when the boy's parrot is kidnapped and a British agent is brutally murdered.  What is the importance of the parrot and the numbers that it recites?  Swiss bank accounts?  The cipher to the German Enigma code?  Holmes is given a second lease on life when he takes the opportunity to use his tremendous mental powers again (perhaps for the last time) for the seemingly innocuous mission of reuniting a boy and his bird. 


Michael Chabon writes in the style of a bygone age.  Each paragraph-sized sentence is elegantly crafted and littered with Victorian references and stretched out with deftly placed commas.  In fact, I would find myself desperately longing for a full stop to put a brake on the narrative so that I could catch up.  Chabon also jumps from character to character, revealing information about the players whilst still keeping the mystery intact.  Even Bruno, the kidnapped parrot offering a bird's eye view of the world, holds a key to the mystery of the numbers that he can recite but not understand.


The novella has the best of both Chabon (beautiful language and a wonderfully alternative view of history) and Doyle (the reduction of a mystery to its elemental parts) and at only 130 pages it is a quick but intensely enjoyable and satisfying read.  Although the scope of this story could easily have been stretched out to a full-length novel its brevity means nobody has an excuse not to read it.


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