FOURTH ESTATE £10 (127pp) £9 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Ever since his Pultizer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has exhibited a restlessness that would be irritating were not the fruits so delightful. After his children's novel Summerland and an adventure-story anthology for McSweeney's magazine, he published The Escapist, a comic strip which grew out of Kavalier & Klay. Now comes The Final Solution, a novella that takes the classic detective story and gussies it up with all the trappings of a literary novel.
Set in England in 1944, it concerns a mute nine-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany named Linus Steinman, placed in a boarding house. Shortly after his arrival, a fellow-boarder turns up dead and Linus's pet parrot, Bruno, goes missing. The two events seem related, and in order to solve the mystery Chabon drags Sherlock Holmes out of retirement for one final case.
It takes a steady hand to appropriate the world's most famous detective, but Chabon has chutzpah to spare. We re-encounter Holmes at his apiary, where has whiled away his retirement. He is proper but a little bit ornery, and we follow him as he wipes the dust off his scepticism. The man is, after all, 89 years old.
Here is where Chabon shows his greatness. Referring to Holmes as "the old man", Chabon takes this most mysterious literary figure and gives him a three-dimensional internal life. "Some old men finished their lives as little more than the sum total of their memories," he writes. "It would please [Holmes] well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue."
Although it takes 30 pages for the main characters to sort themselves out, The Final Solution settles down into a deceptively profound tale that, like Kavalier & Clay, reflects on the lengths to which humans will go to crack the inscrutability of the Holocaust's evil. As in that book, Chabon has taken a horrific event - the unveiling of Hitler's genocidal policies - and approached it from a counter-intuitive perspective. There it was the construction of comic books; here, it is the production of a mystery. Linus's bird has been sprouting numbers in song; there is speculation that it was giving away the Swiss bank-account numbers to Nazi plunder. Not since Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot has a talking bird had this much significance in fiction.
Although The Final Solution is a detective story, the evolution of its characters mirrors that of literary fiction. Holmes makes one final catch but, in doing so, realises that something will always escape him. It's a bittersweet lesson but, if this moving little tale is any measure of future demand, something tells me that Holmes will be moonlighting again.
|Buy any book reviewed on this site at
- postage and packing are free in the UK