Tuesday, July 22, 2008


As you may know, Sherlock Holmes moved to Sussex keep bees in his retirement. A wise man. Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t kill off his most famous creation because he just had too many pots to boil and the public was mad for his reasoning machine/consulting detective, but he was awfully lazy about the details. Notoriously, John Watson, MD, is actually called “James” by one of his wives (that’s a confused issue, too). Holmes’ age is merely one of the questions up for debate. And, since you evidently can’t kill a fictional character, the question of how long he might have lived into the 20th century, so vastly different from the Victorian era of his fame, has been inspirational. A couple of years ago I read Michael Chabon’s novella “The Final Solution,” which takes place in the early 1940s, with the old and slow Holmes gathering up the remnants of his famous abilities to solve a most vexing problem. I found it a very moving work. There is a series of detective novels by someone whose name is escaping me at the moment, in which the alterkocker teams up with a young lady sleuth, work I haven’t read although I hear approving things about it. I’m sure there are plenty of others. Last night, I stayed up far too late to finish A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, which I’d started earlier in the day in our infernal subway system, that portal to hell. In this one, a 93-year-old Holmes (in 1947!) comes to grips with loneliness, mortality, love, vanishing memory, a trip to Japan, and the whole reason he’s spent half his lifetime with the bees. Whew, and this is just the précis! There are some scenes by the kitchen sink, too.

One of the reasons Holmes is interesting is that, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he’s too coolly rational, and we normal animals (so full of loneliness and desire ourselves) crave to see what is underneath that too perfect surface. Cullin includes this rare outburst from Holmes, which I jotted down in my commonplace book a while back while reading the original stories, “What is the meaning of it, Watson?”[…] “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” (Barring what I understand is a fine portrait of Dick Cheney by the late Heath Ledger in the new Batman, the problem of course remains; I tend towards the unthinkable answer.) This is that emotional train-wreck Doyle speaking, of course, breaking through Holmes’ mask, some years before he went whole-hog into spiritualism (Houdini, that great fraud buster, would take him on, but that’s another story).

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