Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A Slight Trick of the Mind

Mitch Cullin

It is 1947, and the long-retired Sherlock Holmes, now 93, lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper and her young son. He tends to his bees, writes in his journal, and grapples with the diminishing powers of his mind. But in the twilight of his life, as people continue to look to him for answers, Holmes revisits a case that may provide him with answers of his own to questions he didn’t even know he was asking–about life, about love, and about the limits of the mind’s ability to know. A novel of exceptional grace and literary sensitivity, A Slight Trick of the Mind is a brilliant imagining of our greatest fictional detective and a stunning inquiry into the mysteries of human connection.
Behind my head as I write this is a shelf with about 20 Sherlock Holmes books plus various DVD adaptations / versions. It would be pretty safe to say I'm a fan. I am not however even remotely precious about it. Amongst those 20 odd books and sat alongside the canon are a number of pastiches, some are downright silly - the 'War of the World' one springs immediately to mind (written by the magnificently named Manly Wellman). Another features Holmes teaming up with a young Teddy Roosevelt, whilst a third pits him against the gentleman burglar Arsene Lupin although he is called Herlock Sholmes in that one. There's even a first edition of Michael Chabon's masterclass of a novel featuring an elderly Holmes, The Final Solution. So basically, do what you want with him. The character is malleable and durable enough and I'm enough of a fan to go along on the journey and see if it's going somewhere interesting.

In 'A Slight Trick of the Mind' Mitch Cullin takes Holmes somewhere very interesting indeed, to the end. Cullin places the nonagenarian Holmes in two very different settings and the younger version into what at first seems like a rather nondescript case that eventually takes on much deeper meanings.

Mitch Cullin
Switching effortlessly between his life amongst his beloved bees in the company of the housekeeper's son, his beekeeping protégé, and a trip to postwar Japan ostensibly to search for prickly ash but also to satisfy a young man's curiosity regarding his estranged father whilst also being drip fed the resolution of the earlier case; Cullin's book is that rarity, a literary pageturner. It's beautifully written and reveals it's heartbreaking secrets both far too soon and frustratingly slowly. The carefully crafted links between the various stories are given the time and space to allow their tales to tell and to allow us to more fully understand what it means to be both Holmes at the height of his powers and Holmes at their decline.

For many people this will no doubt be an ill fit alongside the canon but those people will be missing the point. This isn't a book about Sherlock Holmes the great detective; he is simply the principal in a book about loss both great and small. Loss of friends, loss of family, loss of a child, loss of love, of memory, of things, of direction and ultimately loss of self. Holmes is ourselves wit large and as such any loss is both magnified and intensified. Through him we are shown what it means to be ultimately, inevitably, inescapably fallible.

I found this to be a beautiful and poignant read that took me to a place I've not visited in a while and brought me back filled with questions for which the answers can only be experienced when the time comes for them to be asked.

Heartily and resoundingly recommended.

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