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The curious case of the poorly written mystery

Special to The Times

ON a sultry afternoon in July of 1944 an 89-year-old retired detective, unnamed, aging, yet still in possession of his faculties, looks out the window of his Sussex cottage and sees a 9-year-old boy walking along the railway tracks with a voluble parrot as his only companion. Immediately the detective feels his sense of “promising anomaly” aroused. Before long we learn that the boy, Linus Steinman, is a mute German Jewish refugee. Bruno, the parrot, on the other hand, talks and sings and recites mysterious strings of numbers in German: "[H]ere was a puzzle,” the detective thinks, “to kindle old appetites and energies.”

With this we are dropped into the atmospheric milieu of “The Final Solution,” Michael Chabon’s new illustrated mystery that sets out to pay homage to Arthur Conan Doyle yet feels more like a ham-handed parody of its model.

It is far from clear what Chabon hoped to achieve with this book, which takes for its title so freighted a phrase, merely glances toward so potent a subject, has several of the earmarks but little of the reverberative meaning of a fable, and only in one brief interlude ever comes at all plausibly to life.

The nod to Conan Doyle is apparent enough: The unnamed detective shares Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass, close doctor friend, beekeeping retirement and perspicacious mind. Holmes was, of course, also famously killed off in Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Final Problem,” the title of which Chabon echoes. (The detective, however, was later revealed to have only gone into hiding.)

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There is, inevitably, a crime too -- actually a double crime: the bird-napping of Bruno and the murder of Richard Shane, a boarder in the Panickers’ rooming house, where Linus lives, as do the Panickers’ son Reggie and a Mr. Parkins, who constantly writes down the numbers Bruno speaks. Rounding out the Agatha Christie-like cast of characters are Martin Kalb, a representative of the Aid Committee who placed Linus with the Panickers; Col. Threadneedle, an intelligence officer; and bumbling detectives with names like Detective Constable Quint and Detective Inspector Michael Bellows.

The plot, such as it is, centers on several mysteries: the identity of Shane’s murderer and Bruno’s kidnapper in the foreground, and in the background the meaning of Bruno’s obscure parrotings, the origins of Linus’ muteness, and the question of whether the magisterial detective will be able to solve the crimes at hand. This isn’t much of a question, since one of the things Chabon has done well is draw the portrait of an older, sharper intelligence among younger, more sluggish ones. It is notable that the book’s one unnamed character is far more vivid than all the others with their cutesy nomenclature combined.

With one exception virtually every other figure in this slim volume drifts in and out of the story like so much window-dressing. As though to compensate for the thin characterization and lackluster storytelling, Chabon has succumbed to some perfectly dreadful overwriting: The detective’s beehive, for instance, is presented giving off “an air of doomed contentment, like a city sleeping it off on the day after carnival, contemplated from a hilltop by an army of Huns”; a car has a “tiny windscreen and broken left headlamp [that] lent it a squinting, groping aspect, like that of a drowning sinner seeking an allegorical lifeline.”

Almost, but not quite, redeeming all this turgidity is the chapter where Chabon switches to the bird’s point of view, which turns out to be the freshest in the book. Chabon gives us Bruno, in his kidnapped confinement, remembering sights, smells, sounds and the “train song,” which lingers in his mind “for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy’s mama and papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them.”

The language slows down and cleans up; a certain poignancy accrues; finally the reader begins to care about some of the characters’ pasts and fates. What a shame that “The Final Solution” didn’t start out birdbrained and stay there for the duration.

Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review.


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