In which Michael Chabon resurrects Sherlock Holmes.
The Final Solution is set in England in 1944. It begins with an eighty-year old bee keeper who sees a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder walking alongside train tracks. How much menacing power the word train evokes in a 1940s setting is brilliantly conjured up in this image. We quickly discover this boy is a Jewish refugee and refuses to speak. His parrot however does speak. It recites sequences of German numbers. Some think these are Nazi codes, others Swiss bank account numbers. When we learn the boy was in a death camp the numbers take on an altogether more sinister meaning. Soon the parrot vanishes and a man is killed. The beekeeper, who we now realise is Holmes but is always referred to as the old man, agrees to come out of retirement, not to solve the murder, but to reunite the Jewish boy with his only remaining companion.
The finest achievement of Kavalier & Clay is perhaps the underlying weakness of this novella – the characters, so compellingly integrated and wholeheartedly imagined in K&C, are shadowy entities here. In a novella of 130 pages it’s probably over-ambitious to head hop but this is what Chabon does. The story unfurls from within the consciousness of various characters, including, in the novella’s supreme act of whimsy, the parrot’s and so we never quite feel emotionally engaged in what’s going on. What could be a moving tale of the sundering of companionship becomes more of a whimsical ventriloquist act. It predates David Mitchell’s mischief in mixing and matching genres but seems a bit rough and raw in the light of Mitchell’s adrenaline-charged artistry.
Probably no other writer has addressed the Holocaust in such an original manner as Chabon. Who else would come up with comic book heroes and a talking parrot as protagonists to offset the evil of Nazi Germany? It’s easy to imagine Chabon being utterly immersed while writing Kavalier & Clay and just as easy to imagine him writing this in his spare time, as a kind of playful game. It’s clever but more like an exercise in cleverness than a heartfelt elegy to detective fiction or Holocaust victims.