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Monday, November 22, 2010

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

What an utterly joyless exercise. Joyless to read and, I’m hoping, joyless to write. Because if Michael Chabon, a novelist I have always respected even if I haven’t always loved his stuff, took any joy in writing this needlessly pretentious, unambitious takedown of one of the most beloved characters in all of fiction, then I don’t know if I can continue to respect his work.

The Final Solution is a novel about Sherlock Holmes, not Adolf Hitler. Except, the character is never called Sherlock Holmes, just “the old man.” This is the kind of literary technique that makes my eyes roll. Get over yourself, you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, man up and admit it already. There have been hundreds of Holmes stories published since the death of Conan Doyle, so I’m sure there were no legal complications, and I can’t think of a single valid artistic reason for doing it.

The novel is set in WWII England. The old man is an 89-year-old beekeeper and former detective of renown. He happens to be intrigued one day by a nine-year-old mute and his African gray parrot. The boy can not or will not speak and the bird repeats several series of numbers in German. Later, a man living in the same boarding house as the boy is murdered and the bird goes missing. The local police bring in the legendary detective.

Some that sounds appealing, no? No. Despite its surface oddities, befitting the traditional stories, this iteration of Holmes, perhaps understandably given his age, displays none of the talents and traits of the beloved character. Throughout the entire novel, Holmes hardly figures anything out at all, has major revelations disclosed to him voluntarily, and displays nothing of the keen observational skills so many readers enjoy.

Instead we get page after page describing the creaking of his bones. Or his hearing loss. Or how he used to work with this new cop’s grandfather. So. Freaking. What. He’s old, we get it, now let him solve the mystery. Oh, and to top it all off, the climactic events are told from the point of view of the parrot.

I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I have found every other novel of Chabon’s wanting, none more so than this. Chabon’s defense of genre fiction has always seemed admirable, but why champion a form only to debase in such a public manner.

Bottom line: avoid at all costs. Not for Sherlock fans, not for mystery fans, not for anyone.

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