The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (2004) 127 p.
Arthur Conan Doyle kept writing Sherlock Holmes story up until his death in 1930, but usually backdated them chronologically to place them in the detective’s heyday, the 1890s. The final story in the series’ chronological order, “The Last Bow,” takes place in 1914 on the eve of World War I, after which Holmes retires from detecting and takes up beekeeping in the country.
Michael Chabon’s novella The Final Solution takes place in Sussex in 1944, in which an unnamed, octogenarian beekeeper – who once dazzled Victorian London with his detecting skills – meets a mute Jewish refugee boy and his pet African grey parrot, which has a habit of repeating strings of German numbers. When a man is murdered and the parrot goes missing, Holmes agrees to help the local police track it down – not to solve the “unremarkable” mystery of a murder, but simply to reunite the poor child with his only friend.
The Final Solution (an obvious Holocaust reference and a less obvious reference, for readers unacquainted with Holmesian lore, to a famous story called “The Final Problem”) is firmly set within Chabon’s genre-experimentation period, being a detective story touching on all his typical themes: Judaism, the Holocaust, and even superheroes, if you consider Sherlock Holmes to be an early example of one. He doesn’t attempt to mimic Doyle’s style; this is very much a Chabon novel, with all the wonderfully descriptive writing and excellent metaphors one would expect.
I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan, but obviously many people are, and the character has of course become legend. Even though Doyle himself considered it unremarkable genre fiction which he wrote to pay the rent, many would be miffed with the idea of other writers tinkering with the great detective. But, of course, many have anyway, and there are certainly worse writers to do so than one as gifted as Michael Chabon. There are some poignant scenes as Holmes – still sharp of mind yet beginning to succumb to age – has mental episodes in which he is briefly unable to recognise anything around him.
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 millenium of sand.
Likewise, the final paragraph of the book – and the revelation of precisely what the parrots’ numbers means – is sad and moving. The Final Solution makes any number of veiled commentaries on the concept of mystery and detection, but the most obvious one is the great, unsolvable mystery of the Holocaust, which hangs heavily over the story as a crime that not even Sherlock Holmes can solve. The Final Solution is a short but elegant novella, one which fans of Michael Chabon and fans of Sherlock Holmes alike can enjoy.