Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Final Solution, Final

by Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial / Nov. 2005

I feel odd and a bit behind the times by reviewing Michael Chabon’s novella The Final Solution when all of the rest of the world is reading and reviewing his new full-length novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, released on May 1st. But I’m always behind the times (just ask the friend to whom I said a year ago, “Have you heard of this new thing called the iPod? It’s amazing!” I’m young enough where I should wake up just knowing these kinds of things). But I accepted my unfashionable fate long ago, so: The Final Solution.

It is the summer of a year sometime during World War II, and an old man whom we assume to be Sherlock Holmes spots a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder standing dangerously close to the rail road tracks. We soon learn that, between the boy, an orphan from Nazi-occupied Germany, and his African grey parrot, the parrot is the only one who can speak, rattling off a cryptic series of German numbers. So begins the mystery of The Final Solution. What do the numbers mean? Are they top secret SS-codes or access codes to Swiss bank accounts? And, after the parrot is stolen, who would take the bird and why? And what unspeakable experience lies behind the boy's inablility (or unwillingness?) to speak?

Such a mystery is fit for only the greatest detective ever known to the continent. But does a man whose sharp wit and predatory intelligence helped him solve even the most impossible cases still possess that same mental agility now that he’s reached the dottering old age of eighty-nine? Among many things, The Final Solution is a contemplation on the passage of time and how even the most heroic of us can’t hold back the inevitability of old age. Chabon’s old Sherlock, a Sherlock who’s tilting toward dementia, is as tragic to see as it was to see Christopher Reeves, the original Superman, consigned to a wheel chair. Hot on the pursuit of a lead, “the old man” finds himself outside of a locked bird store on a Monday:

The old man stood with spittle on his cheek…The light went out from his eyes. “A Monday,” said the old man sadly. “I ought to have foreseen this.”
“Perhaps you might have rung in advance,” Mr. Panicker said. “Made an appointment with this Black chap.”
“No doubt,” the old man said. He lowered his stick to the pavement and then, sagging, leaned heavily upon it. “In my haste I…” He wiped at his cheek with the back of a hand. “Such practical considerations seem to lie beyond my…” He lurched forward, and Mr. Panicker caught his arm, and this time the old man failed to shrug him off. His eyes stared as if blindly at the unanswering face of the shop, his face inhabited only by a hint of elderly alarm.

In a perfect world our heroes would never die; never grow old, but in that world we would always be a step removed from our heroes. The younger Sherlock, with his uncanny powers of deduction, was a man whom we could admire but, I suspect that most readers – or at least this reader– didn’t relate as much to Sherlock Holmes as they did to Dr. Watson, who seemed, in his confusion and awe, much more fragilely human than his super sleuth companion. In the The Final Solution, this super sleuth is brought down to ground and is now suffering from the kryptonite of old age. It’s a little sad to see, but Chabon has made Sherlock Holmes a much more sympathetic character, and he handles it with such deftness and respect – love, even – that you have to thank him for it.


Eva said...

Have you read any Laurie King books? She has a series where Sherlock Holmes is one of the main characters, which I highly recommend. :) The first one is called The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

I'm hesitant to pick up The Final Solution; I've become attacked to King's Holmes, and I'm not sure I want to see him senile.

J.S. Peyton said...

I've heard of Laurie King's books but I've never read one. Isn't he married in that series? I think that's what I thought sounded interesting about it. Thanks for the reccomendation! I'll have to put it on my TBR list. I'll read it as soon as I finish Celeb Carr's The Italian Secretary, another modern Sherlock Holmes story, which I bought at the same time I bought The Final Solution.

It is a bit difficult to see the "old" Holmes. I do think that the elegant way Chabon tells the story makes it a worthy read, if for nothing else.