In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, prose magician Michael Chabon conjured the golden age of comic books, interwining history, legend and story-telling verve. In The Final Solution, he has condensed his boundless vision to create a short, suspenseful tale of compassion and wit that re-imagines the classic 19th-century detective story.
In deep retirement in the English countryside, an 89-year old man, vaguely recollected by the locals as a once-famous detective, is more concerned with his bookkeeping than his fellow man. Into his life wanders Linus Steinman, nine years old and mute, who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his sole companion: an African grey parrot. What is the meaning of the mysterious strings of German numbers the bird spews out—a top-secret SS code? The keys to a series of Swiss bank accounts? Or do they hold a significance at once more prosaic and far more sinister?
Though the solution to this last case may be beyond even the reach of the once famed sleuth, the true story of the boy and his parrot is subtly revealed to the reader in a wrenching resolution to this brilliant homage. The Final Solution is a work from a master story-teller at the height of his powers.
Initially published in the Paris Review in 2003, Chabon's first significant adult fiction since his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) continues his sophisticated, if here somewhat skewed, appropriation of pop artifacts in this case one of the greatest pop artifacts of all, Sherlock Holmes. As fans of the great detective know, after retirement Holmes moved from London to Sussex, where he spent his days keeping bees. Chabon's story takes place during WWII, when Holmes is 89 and intent on bee-keeping only until a mysterious boy wanders into town. The boy is remarkable for two reasons: he's clearly intelligent but is mute, and he keeps a parrot that mouths, among other utterances, numbers in German. When the parrot is stolen, local cops turn to Holmes, and he's intrigued enough to dust off his magnifying glass and go to work. The writing here is taut and polished, and Chabon's characters and depictions of English country life are spot on. It's notable, though, that Chabon refers to Holmes never by name but persistently as "the old man" notable because it's difficult to discern a reason other than self-conscious artistry not to name Holmes; the scenes in the novel that grip the strongest are those that feature Holmes, and more credit is due to Conan Doyle than to Chabon for that. Neither a proper mystery nor particularly fine literature, this haunting novella, for all its strengths, lies uneasily between the two and will fully please few fans of each.