Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Final Solution

By Michael Chabon.

Thought the old man is never named, this is a story about Sherlock Holmes in his retirement. Michael Chabon is one of my more recent favourite authors, and I am not yet up to date with his output. Still, the idea of him reviving one of my favourite series in fiction was too much to resist.
Even if it hadn't been too much too resist, though, the cover of this book would have been. This photo doesn't do it any sort of justice: it's a beautiful thing.

What I was hoping for:

The breathtakingly clever plots of Conan Doyle, with the real and artfully shown humans you get in a Chabon. The best of both worlds, somehow, magically, alchemically, distilled into one very short volume.

What I got.

Something else. Instead of a combination of the two, I got a middle ground.

Chabon's central quest, I think, is to humanise Holmes. The focus of his writing is always acute humanity, thought not in the way you'd expect. So of course, if he writes about Holmes, he's going to write about the human.
That's why this is set in Sherlock's old age: the only way to look past the brutal intellect without irreversibly meddling with it is to wait for it to fade, and see what it leaves. Chabon avoids playing around too much with another author's character by letting nature, inarguably and irresponsibly, do it for him.

So Chabon certainly takes this story out of Conan Doyle country. But is it really a middle ground? It sounds more like he's taken it all the way back to Chabon land.

Or so I thought, at first. And much as I love thewriting, it's bit of a waste: to use such a great world merely as in-jokes and furniture. But the more I read--and the less likely the possibility of a classic Holmes deduction and closure became--the more of Conan Doyle I found.

Because Chabon isn't imitating Conan Doyle. Nor is he adding a new dimension to Holmes. He's smarter than that, on both counts. All he is doing is revealing what was already there, but overshadowed. When we think of Holmes, we think of the great leaps of reasoning from tiny details, but that is not the essential nature of his character. He's not that easily parodied.
What Chabon shows us, behind the fading light of the intellect, are it's origins. Still there, after the years among the bees, is his absolute hunger for any and all information, for information's sake.There is his complete arrogance, which informs his independence beyond his means. Above all, their is his unmasked, unquenchable drive for whatever he is doing.

All that was there, in Conan Doyle. Despite Micah Clarke, the man was no lightweight writer, only suited to adventure and games. It might take a writer like Chabon to point it out, but there is 'literary' quality throughout Holmes.

As a middle ground, The Final Solution is more Chabon than Conan Doyle, inevitably. I thought the lesson might be that you're best of sticking to what you write: it's true, I think, that you'll never be able to change it. But this book is too good for that message.

Look at the illustrations. I think the way we read something is governed by how we expect it to be. If we read something with a genre cover, we're not going to give it literary credit, and vice versa. But that's not a winning strategy.

So the new lesson is this: aim away from where you usually write. You won't lose what you have, but you may gain something.
I write detail-ridden, people-driven things, where not enough happens. I've already discovered the importance for me of putting most of my effort into vainly trying to make what I write plot-driven and page-turning.
It's a reassuring lesson, for me: I will never lose my own approach, so I can let it look after itself; and I will never get to the plot-driven page-turner place, but getting all the way there isn't the point. A middle ground doesn't mean the best of both, but it doesn't mean the worst of both, either. It's something new.


  1. Interesting stuff!May have to give this a try as I do love Holmes. The illustrations also look awesome!

  2. It's like high-class well-done fan fiction. How cool!

  3. i love both chabon and conan doyle so i am sure i will like this. i agree about the aiming away from what you usually write. when i am writing there is always a quick flash of something new that shows up and vanishes all in the same instant. it has been trained to disappear through sats, book reports and the just wanting to fit in-ness of school. that is the flash to follow. it takes you straight out of your comfort zone into something scary and fun. great blog!