Fancy Patter

Theo Tait

  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
    Fourth Estate, 127 pp, £10.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 00 719602 4

As everyone knows, Sherlock Holmes only appeared to plunge into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a deadly embrace with Professor Moriarty. In fact, using his knowledge of ‘baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling’, Holmes slipped Moriarty’s grip at the vital moment, watched his nemesis totter then fall, and was planning his next move before the Napoleon of crime had even hit the water. Holmes returned to London – via Florence, Tibet, Persia, Mecca, Khartoum and Montpellier (where he undertook a little research into coal-tar derivatives) – to surprise Dr Watson at his Paddington consulting rooms some years later, in the guise of an elderly bibliophile. By the time of Holmes’s resurrection in ‘The Empty House’ (1903), Arthur Conan Doyle heartily resented his most famous creation, but vast amounts of cash had proved an irresistible lure. Doyle made no further efforts to bump him off; the best he managed was retirement. In ‘His Last Bow’ (1917), Holmes is called on to roll up a German spy network on the eve of the First World War. Dr Watson, that indefatigable plot-exposition device, fills us in:

‘But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.’

‘Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!’ He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. ‘Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.’

These few lines supply the background to Michael Chabon’s novella, which begins thirty years later on the South Downs. The main character is an ‘old man’, once a famous detective, now devoted to his bees. He remains unnamed throughout, but given that he wears an Inverness cape and hunting cap, and carries a magnifying glass bearing ‘an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life’, one does not need Holmes-like powers of deduction to join the dots. For the enthusiast, there are various references to classic Holmes adventures: stolen naval plans, and horse thieves tracked down ‘from the absence of a watchdog’s bark’; the title answers that of the Reichenbach story, ‘The Final Problem’ (1893). It also makes the more obvious reference. In the massive body of post-Doyle Holmes literature, the most popular move has been to pit the great detective against Jack the Ripper. Chabon gives him a more remorseless opponent: he sets the old man against the Holocaust.

It is July 1944, and the old man sees a boy with an African Grey parrot on his shoulder walking along a railway line in front of his house. The boy is mute, but the parrot speaks, in German, quoting long sequences of numbers, as well as snatches of Goethe and Schiller. ‘Here was a puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies,’ the old man thinks. The boy, Linus Steinman, is a Jewish refugee, the son of a Berlin psychiatrist, who is lodging with the local vicar – a South Indian by the name of Mr Panicker. Not long afterwards, another lodger, Mr Shane, is found dead in the lane behind the vicarage, his head stove in. And the parrot is missing. Whodunit? The bumbling local constabulary assumes that the vicar’s ne’er-do-well son Reggie is to blame; that Shane interrupted him in the act of making off with the bird (to sell in London, to pay off his debts to Fattie Hodges, the local tough). But could it not have been the vicar himself whose long-suffering wife had conceived an adulterous passion for the dashing and rather mysterious Mr Shane? Or perhaps something altogether more sinister is afoot. A third lodger, Mr Parkins, works at a Bletchley Park-style secret facility nearby; Linus’s father, it seems, was psychiatrist to a tormented senior Nazi, ‘someone involved in codes and ciphers’. Surely Mr Kalb, the handsome young Jewish man from the Aid Committee, isn’t involved? ‘These are deep waters, Watson,’ Holmes might have said, had his sidekick been around.

As devotees of detective fiction will have already realised, this set-up does not really resemble one of Doyle’s stories. Holmes never went near a vicarage murder: his atheist (and later spiritualist) creator avoided vicars like the plague. With its cosy setting and range of suspects, none of whom is drawn from the criminal classes, The Final Solution resembles a golden age detective story – the ‘Mayhem Parva school’ of detective fiction made famous by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. What Chabon does is to take the neat classical form – the symmetries of suspicion, the reassuring world in which wrongdoers are always discovered, and the values of Little England restored – and to split it open against the history of the mid-20th century.

The clues start to point in the direction of a horrific and unsolvable crime: Linus, it appears, was kept at a ‘secret facility or camp’ with his family; the parrot drives Mr Kalb to distraction by singing ‘the train song’. And so Holmes, the embodiment of Victorian faith in rationality and progress, described in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) as ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen’, is faced, obliquely, with the ultimate spectacle of rationality gone mad. We do not learn whether the numbers refer to German naval codes, Swiss bank accounts, or concentration camp inmates. Holmes, whose raison d’être has been ‘the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life’ is forced, reluctantly, to conclude that ‘it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things.’

This is too trite an inversion to do justice, even in a negative sense, to its weighty subject-matter. The golden age detective story is an unashamedly artificial form, nothing more than a satisfying puzzle or pulp ritual, premised on the rigorous exclusion of the real-world nasties of the interwar years: memories of the Great War, the General Strike, poverty and unemployment, dictators, Blackshirts and so on. There is no secret about this; in fact the 19th rule laid down by S.S. Van Dine, the great codifier of the golden age, demands that ‘the motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction – in secret-service tales, for instance.’ Subverting the genre, or exploding it, seems like an obvious and slightly pointless game. In fact, Chabon appears to recognise this, and is relentlessly facetious throughout. He writes in a sort of pastiche that announces itself as pastiche, full of fussy eccentricities and jolly faux-Woosterish asides: ‘Shane nodded, mouth open, eyes blinking slowly, like a golfing man pretending to enjoy for courtesy’s sake an impromptu lecture on cell mitosis or irrational numbers.’

The Final Solution has its moments. The beehives are knowledgeably and rather beautifully described. There are some nice incidental conceits. For instance, Holmes, crawling on hands and knees in search of a lost pad, imagines himself dying thus: ‘It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue.’ But, as a whole, it doesn’t add up to much. The novella seems to have been published in book form as an afterthought; it appeared first in the Paris Review. It could have stayed there without much loss to the reading public.

It’s a pity, because Chabon might have made something out of Sherlock Holmes, one of those fictional characters so powerful they have created their own reality. Witness the Sherlockians, a breed of obsessives who like to pretend that Holmes actually existed, and that Doyle was merely ‘the literary agent’ who conveyed the stories to the publisher. Or, more pathetic still, those who, to this day, send letters to 221B Baker Street, asking Holmes to right wrongs or to find missing relatives. This kind of material is perfectly suited to Chabon, who has already literally written the book on the counterpoint between escapist literature and the brute facts of reality – in the form of an earlier novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000).

This is the story of a couple of Jewish boy geniuses, Sammy Clay and his cousin Josef Kavalier, who make it big in the comic-book business at the end of the 1930s. At the beginning of the novel, Joe escapes from Nazi-controlled Prague to New York (the golem is being shipped out of Prague in order to protect it from prying German anthropologists, and Joe hitches a ride in the outsized coffin). But his family is still trapped in Czechoslovakia, and, desperate to raise enough money to free them, Joe joins forces with his cousin to create the Escapist: a superhero who tours occupied Europe in the guise of a stage escapologist, freeing refugees and defenceless children from the Axis powers, occasionally even landing a haymaker on Hitler (thinly camouflaged as Attila Haxoff, leader of the Razis). An amalgam of Superman and Harry Houdini, the Escapist is a comic-book golem, brought to life, like Rabbi Loew’s legendary clay automaton, to protect the Jews from persecution. The Escapist makes Joe and Sammy rich. But, back in the real world, Joe’s efforts to free his family are thwarted at every turn: he takes refuge in wreaking ever more violent revenge on the Razi armies, and occasionally picking a fight with a German at a baseball game.

Kavalier & Clay is, in part, an intricately worked fictional elaboration of the idea that superheroes are parables of Jewish identity. ‘They’re all Jewish, superheroes,’ Sammy tells his cousin. ‘Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.’ It is also, more generally, a wonderful piece of storytelling, indulging the old-fashioned pleasures that nowadays only historical novels and bestsellers seem to cater for: rooting for the good guys, following their progress from rags to riches, gasping at unexpected plot twists, losing oneself in richly imagined fictional worlds. It is, as a result, slightly cheesy, and slightly windy – repetitive, and featuring several gloriously gratuitous subplots. But then Chabon is not much interested in good taste. He’s not so much a stylist as a carnival barker, a master of fancy patter. The novel is a wildly enthusiastic and very convincing celebration of hokum: comic books, vaudeville, movies, stage magic, and via these, of Jewish ingenuity, and the American dream.

Chabon’s real magic trick, however, is the one he doesn’t manage in The Final Solution: matching up the light touch with the dark materials, the high-spirited paean to genre fiction with the undercurrent of loss, futility and pain. In Kavalier & Clay, this produces some fine moments about the glory and the inefficacy of make-believe. The golem, he writes, ‘was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something – one poor, dumb, powerful thing – exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater Creation’.