What a joy it has been of late for us Sherlockians. Not only has there been a batch of new scholarly Holmes-related books to digest and debate--among them THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES--but we've also been blessed with three very interesting and top-notch pastiches. What makes this trio of recent novels so unique is that they come from unlikely writers, individuals who fall more into the literary category than the mystery genre. I am, of course, referring to the three-headed prong that is Caleb Carr (THE ITALIAN SECRETARY), Michael Chabon (THE FINAL SOLUTION), and Mitch Cullin (A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND).
As I decided to read all three books back to back, I shall comment on them in the order in which they were read. For better or worse, I started with the one that I believed would be the most satisfying of the trio: Caleb Carr's THE ITALIAN SECRETARY. However, while I found Carr's book engaging and fun for the most part, I was somewhat disappointed with it. In hindsight, my feelings might have more to do with my high regard for Carr's previous novels--such as THE ALIENIST--than it does with the actual quality of his Sherlock novel. In other words, had THE ITALIAN SECRETARY been written by someone else, I might not have found myself feeling it lacked the strength and depth of story that I've come to expect from, yes, a Caleb Carr novel. So putting those thoughts aside, I will say that Carr's book is mostly well written and he has done a good job at capturing the spirit, intrigue, and style of Doyle. However, it fell a little flat toward the end, giving me the sense of a rushed job. Even so, both his Holmes and Watson are vivid and quite enjoyable, and I do hope he tries his hand at another Sherlock pastiche, taking his time to draw the story out rather than move it so swiftly to its conclusion. A somewhat slight but worthy read nevertheless.
Next up was Michael Chabon's THE FINAL SOLUTION, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer's look at an unnamed Sherlock in retirement, set with World War II as the backdrop. This novella--not novel--is actually quite wonderful and the writing is fluid, lyrical, and overall rather excellent. To be frank, I wasn't expecting much from such a slim volume that offered us Sherlock as an elderly gentleman. But I was mistaken. It is an intelligent diversion, and, like Mitch Cullin's novel, brings the character into a modern age that somewhat confounds him. If I have any complaints, though, it is that Chabon made a point of never mentioning Sherlock by name (he is simply The Old Man), and, by doing so, skirted the character's history and much of his background, making him a bit one dimensional. The shortness of the book, too, didn't leave much room for the plot (which is, by the way, very interesting) or other characters to be developed at any great length. Still, there was enough here to hold my interest, and, in its own way, THE FINAL SOLUTION not only compliments Mitch Cullin's longer work but its themes and story also function as a kind of extended prologue to the last book in the threesome. A wonderfully written, thoughtful addition to Holmes literature that manages to pack a decent punch in too few pages.
Poor Mitch Cullin, I thought when I finally got around to his A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND. Besides holding the distinction of being "the best American novelist you`ve probably never heard of," his attempt to capture Sherlock followed in the shadows of both Carr and Chabon's efforts (although, by comparison, I'm willing to bet Cullin toiled on his book much longer than either of his contemporaries). And yet, of the three, his vision of Holmes is the most interesting and the best realized. The writing is superb, if not downright poetic at times. Most important to me, however, was that the elderly Sherlock of this novel has been humanized in a very realistic manner but yet, without question, still reads and sounds like Doyle's creation. That is no easy achievement, and one that should be applauded. In the hands of a lesser writer, this feeble version of Sherlock could easily be considered a bad joke, or, worse, a fraud. But Cullin has rendered him with such attention and, dare I say it, loving detail that I held no doubts about the character by the book`s end. It also helped considerably that this writer had clearly researched the Canon in order to keep his facts accurate. However, to say this is a mystery novel would be misleading, because it is actually something more than that. Yes, there is a mystery here--mysteries, in fact--but they are of the grand human scale (Hiroshima, war, memory, isolation, loss of loved ones) rather than the parlor room variety, and as such they are much harder to solve. The best of the batch, and a masterful literary effort that is also a worthy addition to the Canon Pastiche.