Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, A Story of Detection is an exquisite book. Chabon, who reexamined the golden age of comics in the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, takes up the detective novel.
Final Solution is set in the Sussex Downs, in Southern England in the summer of 1944. The Allies have just invaded Normandy but the war is far from over. An 89-year old man, retired to a life of quiet bee-keeping, sits looking out his window and spies a young boy strolling along some railroad tracks with a large gray parrot on his shoulder. The old man deduces that the young boy is about to do himself in and drags himself out of his chair and makes his way to the boy. The boy, Linus Steinman, turns out to be a young Jewish-German refugee, recently escaped from the horrors of occupied and resettled in England by a refugee agency. He is mute and generally uncommunicative. The only sounds emanating from the direction of the boy come from the extraordinarily loquacious parrot who comes out with an apparently never-ending stream of numbers, spoken in flawless German.
It is the talking parrot and the meaning of the random numbers that form the heart of the mystery of the Final Solution. Chabon then introduces us to the rest of his cast of characters. The mute Linus lives in a small boarding house owned by the Reverend and Mrs. Panicker. Mr. Panicker, of Malayan origin, seems to have lost his faith and seems merely to be treading water. Mrs. Panicker seems unloved and unwanted except for the meal she provides her boarders, until the mysterious Mr. Shane intervenes in an argument between Mrs. Panicker and her ne'er do well son. Mr. Shane, despite claiming to be in the dairy equipment business seems far more intriguing than his occupation suggests. The parrot incites interest and speculation on all concerned. What do those numbers mean?
Speculation and the possibility of untold wealth at the end of the random number mystery invariably lead to the murder of one of the characters. Additionally, the mysterious parrot has been stolen. Of course, the bumbling local constabulary immediately focuses on the wrong party. Into the breech steps the old man. It turns out the 89 year old bee-keeper was once a world famous detective. Still smoking a pipe and still mocking constables, the old man goes about seeking a solution to the crime.
Chabon does not provide the name of this old man but it seems clear that he could be none other than the great Sherlock Holmes. Readers of Sherlock Holmes know that Holmes retired to Sussex Downs to spend his remaining years as a bee keeper. The title of the book, Final Solution, provides another clue. Although clearly relevant to the as yet undiscovered horrors of the Holocaust implicit in Linus profound silence, it also calls to mind A.C. Doyle's The Final Problem, the famous Holmes tale where Holmes was thought to have died after falling at the Reichenbach Falls.
Although short, only 131 pages, Chabon has invested his characters with depth and nuance. His portrayals of both the old detective, Linus, and Mrs. Panicker are compelling. He even manages to invest Bruno the parrot with insight into the `human drama' unfolding before him.
This is an excellent book. Be prepared to read it in one sitting. It is that good.