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Mitch Cullin brings us Sherlock
Holmes, but now the great detective is 93 years old, living in Sussex in the
south of England, the year being 1947.
Nearly everyone from his detecting days with whom he had any friendship
-- especially John Watson and his brother Moriarty -- has died. He lives with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and
her fourteen-year-old son Roger, and he has started to teach Roger about his
beloved bees. Indeed, he needs Roger's
help, because Holmes is now infirm, using two canes to walk, and he is losing
his memory. While he was away visiting
Kobe, Japan, Roger looked after the bees, and on returning Holmes is impressed
by how well the boy has done. The
detective has always been a very solitary man, and instructing Roger about the
ways of bees provides him with some human connection that has always been
lacking in his life.
Indeed, in his twilight years,
Holmes has started to bend a few of his own rules and be rather warmer in some
of his interactions with others. He
spends a great deal of time reflecting on his past, and how isolated he has
been. Sadly, just as he is coming to
open up a little, his increasing memory loss is starting to cut him off from
other people. When he arrives back home
with a glass vial containing two Japanese honeybees, he has no idea how they
came to be in his pocket. He forgets
Roger greeting him when he returned from his trip, and has to be reminded by
Mrs. Munro that he just saw the boy.
Seeing Holmes like this can make us question what his life was like, and
whether despite his great intelligence, he didn't make some terrible mistakes
in deciding how to live. So A Slight
Trick of the Mind is a deeply reflective work, and is often poignant.
There are two stories within the
story. One concerns the past few months,
with Holmes' recent trip to Japan to visit Mr. Umezaki, with whom he has been
exchanging letters for several years.
Of course, it is only a few years since the end of the Second World War,
ended by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and these
events are very much on the minds of his Japanese hosts. Although Holmes is interested by some of his
experience touring the ruins, it is not so clear that he cares very much about
it. Often, it seems that the only thing
that Holmes really has any concern for is bee-keeping.
The episode that occupies Holmes is
a case from many years ago, near the end of his active career as a detective,
that he has started to write up in a story called "The Glass
Armonicist." Here he describes
being hired by a husband worried about the bizarre behavior of his wife who is
in mourning for the baby she had because of two miscarriages. The man encouraged his wife to deal with her
emotions by taking lessons to play these strange glass instruments that make a
haunting sound, and after initial reluctance, she seemed to have become
obsessed with the activity. With the
perspective of several decades, Holmes looks back with his brief encounter with
Mrs. Keller with deep regret. It is a
case that haunts him still, although the reader may wonder why the depressed
woman had such a hold over him.
For the most part, Cullin's writing
creates a believable figure in the nonagenarian Holmes. The man is not as arrogant or sure of
himself as Conan Doyle's character, but the changes are natural given the
effects of time. Furthermore, the old
stories of Holmes were supposed to be written by Dr. Watson, while this novel
is written in an impersonal third-person voice, along with samples of Holmes'
own writing, so perspective of the narrator is quite different from that of the
old detective stories. The time being
described can shift quickly from moment to moment, switching from the present
to a few weeks ago to the distant past, with a bewildering speed, apparently
suggesting the increasing confusion in Holmes' mind.
It is never quite clear why Cullin
goes to the lengths of putting Holmes in Japan, but it does have the advantage
of taking Holmes away from his accustomed environment, which keeps the novel
fresh and interesting. While on his
Sussex farm, Holmes can largely ignore the changes going on in the world
outside, he has to confront the changing society much more directly when he
goes traveling. This trip also adds
some energy to the plot, so we do not have to read only about Holmes sitting
around reminiscing. Nevertheless, this
part of the story does not entirely work, because the detective remains so much
within his own world even when he is in such a different culture.
A Slight Trick of the Mind
is read wonderfully by Simon Jones in the unabridged audiobook, and he strikes
just the right balance between the arrogance and incisiveness of the old
Sherlock Holmes and the pathos of the old frail man at the end of his
life. The book tends to work more as a
curiosity building on the fame of an iconic detective rather than an
independent work of literature, but it is enjoyable and pleasantly sad.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.