The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Read: April 28, 2007

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I have to admit, I only read his Sherlock Holmes work (which might have come as a bit of a disappointment to Doyle, as he wanted to be known for something besides Holmes). So, when I first learned of Michael Chabon’s novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution, I was definitely intrigued.

The story is short: it took me only maybe 2 to 3 hours to read it. While it is well written, it uses grammatical constructions that were, at least for me, sometimes hard to get around. But, in the end, it was a very pleasant story that I greatly enjoyed. The mystery, while not overly complex, is enough to keep the book moving.

The real story, though, is not about the mystery that the old man finds himself drawn into. Rather, it is about the old man himself in his later years, when his body has failed him and his mind is beginning to as well. This is his last case and, while not as taxing as many he found himself dealing with as a younger man, considering his physical condition, it is about all he can handle. As such, it isn’t a traditional Sherlock Holmes story in that sense. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but rather a story about Sherlock Holmes the man. And, as such, I rather enjoyed it. But, as a Sherlock Holmes mystery, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

The mystery involves a murder and a missing parrot. It is the old man’s task to find the parrot and, in doing so, the murderer. The biggest disappointment for me is that the solution of the mystery doesn’t really involve any great insight into the case by the old man, the kind of piercing insight that is the hallmark of Sherlock Holmes. It is rather the help of a little boy that leads to the solution. The one time when the old man offers some great insight into the case (dealing with the motivations of one of the suspects), it comes entirely out of the blue. There is no reason for him to know what he does. He attributes it to his bees. But, unless he has a network of “spies” in the town, which is unlikely given his living arrangement, I don’t see how he would have that insight, unless it was a blind guess. And the Holmes I remember didn’t do blind guesswork.

So, as a Holmes mystery, I was disappointed in the story. But, as a story about Holmes in his final years, it was very enjoyable. Seeing the old man’s reactions to his difficulty to move around was very interesting. And his fear, not of death, but of an ignoble death — of dying with his face in his porridge — seemed to me to be in character.

One thing that struck me as odd and out of place. One chapter is from the point of view of the parrot. I found this particularly odd in a Holmes story, as nothing of the sort ever occurs in Doyle’s tales. I’m also always perplexed by these sorts of approaches since it seems we have no idea how a parrot looks at the world. How can anyone know how to write anything from a parrot’s point of view.

Finally, we never learn the true value of the parrot. There is obviously great interest in him, but we never learn why. A number of reasons are put forth, but no definitive one is stated. I’m sure this is intentional, but I would have liked to know something about what the meaning of the bird’s ramblings really was.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, just not so much as a Holmes story. For someone expecting a mystery in the Doyle style, this isn’t that story. But, as a story about the man himself, it is very good and I highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “The Final Solution by Michael Chabon”

  1. There is a solution to the meaning of the numbers. It’s there in the book, though it’s something neither Holmes nor anyone else in the book is in a position to understand. But you can. Think about the title. Think about why Kalb kept calling it the Train Song, why the bird recites it in front of moving trains… (Hint: Re-read the parrot chapter and look up the german for ‘Obengruppenfuhrer’)

    Cheers!

  2. Thanks for the hint, Giles. I haven’t gone back to look at the specific numbers yet, but I think I know what they are about now, thanks to your help.

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