Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sherlock Holmes

I’ve written before about the joy that Stacey and I take from Sherlock Holmes stories, which we read aloud to each other on road trips. Holmes and Watson are the perfect company for such trips, reliable and unchanging. Holmes will always be a bit showy and arrogant, sometimes downright rude, unwilling to bother with the niceties and incidental politeness of human interaction. Watson will be astonished and a bit slow, but loyal, brave, and more human than his calculating friend.

Mitch Cullin’s astonishing novel A Slight Trick of the Mind takes a real Holmes as its central character. Without ever betraying the Holmes we know, Cullin transforms him utterly, leaving us with a man much more interesting, complex, and sympathetic. It is 1947, and Holmes is 93 years old and living in retirement in rural Sussex, having outlived the small circle of people he cared about. He remains famous, due to Watson’s still-popular stories (and embellishments) of their cases, some of which make him uncomfortable through their reminders him of his youthful arrogance. Nowadays, his life is much quieter. He walks in his garden, supported by two canes, tends bees, and makes notes for a new edition of his textbook on detection.

Yet he knows his faculties are beginning to go, and, given that for Holmes, his knowledge has been his person, the realization that loss is inevitable suffuses him—and the book—with melancholy. He puts an unscientific, vain faith in the health-giving properties of a byproduct of honeybees, royal jelly (which echoes Conan Doyle’s embrace of spiritualism late in life), and he keeps thinking, analyzing, and working. But the thoughts are sometimes fugitive:
Once settled in his chair, he stared intently at the handwritten pages covering the desktop, each filled with a multitude of hastily conceived words, inked characters like a child’s scrawl, but just then the strands of his memory began unwinding, leaving him unsure of what those pages might actually pertain to. Soon the receding threads floated away, disappearing into the night like leaves whisked from the gutters, and for a spell, he remained staring at the pages, while not questioning or recalling or thinking anything.

He is old, and for the first time, he has become unsure. An unsure Holmes should be jarring; it is a testament to Cullin’s skill that, instead, Holmes, his doubts, and the melancholy they bring become utterly real. Loss pervades the book—through a trip to Japan, ruminations on beekeeping, and a rudimentary but satisfying recounting of an earlier case—and as Cullin visits and revisits images, ideas, and themes, we are left with a full and surprising portrait of someone we thought we already knew, someone who still notices every little detail but is no longer sure about the larger picture they add up to.

I have little patience for people who would use theory to reduce culture to an impersonal outgrowth of material or cultural conditions, and books like this one are a primary reason. Why did Cullin bring together the strands of thought that he’s chosen? Why Holmes? Why a trip to Hiroshima? Why beekeeping? Why lost fathers, questioning sons? Once Cullin hit upon the idea of a Holmes faced with the crippling loss of the very facts and logic that have enabled him to come to terms with the world, how and why did those other elements become part of the story? The choices are strikingly individual, but they cohere magnificently, the parts weaving into a whole that feels utterly organic, ultimately seeming less like a set of choices than a complete vision, fully realized. It serves as a reminder that art, even when taking up and reusing elements already present in the culture, is a deeply individual undertaking—yet if it’s successful, it communicates powerfully to others.

I fear that the presence of Holmes in A Slight Trick of the Mind will forever condemn this book to a lesser status, somewhere well above fanfiction, but well below that of literature. It deserves far better. Cullin is an extremely good and thoughtful writer, fashioning occasional sentences of epigrammatic precision, like this one:
In that moment, he doubted if there could be any mental state more relentlessly cruel than the desiring of real meaning from circumstances that lacked useful or definitive answers.

And the elegiac tone of the book, assisted by the restrained, descriptive, and patient prose, creates a true melancholy, far more penetrating and believable than the somewhat affected meanderings of W. G. Sebald, for example. Throughout my life, I’ll keep reading Conan Doyle’s stories of Holmes, but I will never be able to forget the Holmes that Cullin has shown me.

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