Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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I’m pretty sure that I’ve read everything published by Michael Chabon, so when his latest book was released, I scooped up a copy of the novella, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. An homage to Sherlock Holmes, Chabon creates as his protagonist Holmes in retirement at age 89, and structures the book as a mystery, while retaining the literary dynamism that makes Chabon one of today’s great writers. Unfortunately, the literary complexity and the mystery structure didn’t blend well, and the combined result is a decent book, but nothing close to Chabon’s best. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, pp. 21-28:


They found him sitting on the boot bench outside his front door, hatted and caped in spite of the heat, sun­burnt hands clasping the head of his blackthorn stick. All ready to go. As if—though it was impossi­ble—he were expecting them. They must have caught him on his doorstep, boots laced, gathering his strength for a late-morning tramp across the Downs.

“Which one are you?” he said to Inspector Bellows. His eye was exceedingly bright. The great beak quivered as if catching scent of them. “Speak up.”

“Bellows,” said the inspector. “Detective Inspector Michael Bellows. Sorry to bother you, sir. But I am new on the job, down here, learning the ropes, as they say, and I don’t at all overrate my capacities.”

At this last assertion the inspector’s companion, Detective Constable Quint, cleared his throat and politely directed his gaze toward the middle distance.

“Bellows . . . I knew your father,” the old man sug­gested. Head tottering on his feeble neck. Cheeks flecked with the blood and plaster of an old man’s hasty shave. “Surely? In the West End. Red-haired chap, ginger mus­tache. Specialized, as I recall, in confidence men. Not with­out ability I should have said.”

“Sandy Bellows,” the inspector said. “Grandfather, actu­ally. And how often did I hear him speak highly of you, sir.”

Not quite so often, perhaps, the inspector thought, as I heard him curse your name.

The old man nodded, gravely. The inspector’s sharp eye detected a fleeting sadness, a flicker of memory that briefly seamed the old man’s face.

“I have known a great many policemen,” he said. “A great many.” He brightened, willfully. “But it is always a pleasure to make the acquaintance of another. And Detec­tive Constable . . . Quint, I believe?”

He trained his raptor gaze now on the constable, a dark, brooding potato-nosed fellow. DC Quint was much attached, as he rarely neglected to let it be known, to the prior detective inspector, sadly deceased but a proponent apparently of the old solid methods of policework. Quint tipped a finger to the brim of his hat. Not a talkative fellow, DC Quint.

“Now, who has died, and by what means?” the old man said.

“A man named Shane, sir. Struck in the back of the head with a blunt object.”

The old man looked unimpressed. Even, perhaps, disap­pointed.

“Ah,” he said. “Shane struck in the back of the head. Blunt object. I see.”

Perhaps a bit batty after all, thought the inspector. Not what he used to be, as Quint had put it. Pity.

“I am not in the least senile, Inspector, I assure you,” the old man said. He had read the trend of the inspector’s thoughts; no, that was impossible, too. Read his face, then; the cant of his shoulders. “But this is a crucial moment, a crisis, if you will, in the hives. I could not possibly abandon them for an unremarkable crime.”

Bellows glanced at his constable. The inspector was young enough, and murder rare enough on the South Downs, for it to seem to both policemen that there was per­haps something remarkable about a man’s skull being staved in with a poker or a sap, behind a vicarage.

“And this Shane was armed, sir,” DC Quint said. “Car­ried a Webley service pistol, for all that he claimed to be, and near as we can tell he were, nothing but a commercial traveler in—” He pulled a small oilskin-covered notepad from his pocket and consulted it. The inspector had already learned to detest the sight of that notepad with its careful inventory of deeply irrelevant facts. “—the dairy machine and equipment line.”

“Hit from behind,” the inspector said. “It appears. In the dead of night as he was about to get into his motor. Bags all packed, apparently leaving town with no explanation or goodbye, though only just a week before he prepaid two months’ lodging at the vicarage.”

“The vicarage, yes, I see.” The old man closed his eyes, heavily, as if the facts in the case were not merely unre­markable but soporific. “And no doubt you have, quite lit­erally unadvisedly, since you can have received no sensible counsel in the matter, leapt to the readiest conclusion, and placed young Mr. Panicker under arrest for the crime.”

Though aware of the silent film comedy aspect of their behavior, Inspector Bellows found to his shame he couldn’t prevent himself from exchanging another sheep-faced look with his constable. Reggie Panicker had been arrested at ten that morning, three hours after the discovery of the body of Richard Woolsey Shane, of Sevenoaks, Kent, in the lane be­hind the vicarage where the deceased had parked his 1933 MG Midget.

“For which crime,” continued the old man, “that lamen­table young man in the fullness of time will duly be hanged by the neck, and his mother will weep, and then the world will continue to roll blindly on its way through the void, and in the end your Mr. Shane will still be dead. But in the meantime, Inspector, Number 4 must be re-queened.”

And he waved a long-fingered starfish hand, all warts and speckles, dismissing them. Sending them along their way. He patted down the pockets of his wrinkled suit: look­ing for his pipe.

“A parrot is missing!” Inspector Michael Bellows tried, helpless, hoping this titbit might in the old man’s unimag­inable estimation add some kind of luster to the crime. “And we found this on the person of the vicar’s son.”

He drew from his breast pocket the dog-eared calling card of Mr. Jos. Black, Dealer in Rare and Exotic Birds, Club Row, London, and submitted it to the old man, who did not give it a glance.

“A parrot.” Somehow, Bellows saw, he had managed not merely to impress but to astonish the old man. And the old man looked delighted to so find himself. “Yes, of course. An African gray. Belonging, perhaps, to a small boy. Aged about nine years. A German national—of Jewish origin, I’d wa­ger—and incapable of speech.”

Now would have been the moment for the inspector to clear his own throat. DC Quint had argued strenuously against involving the old man in the investigation. He’s strictly non compos sir, I can heartily assure you of that. But Inspector Bellows was too flummoxed to gloat. He had heard the tales, the legends, the wild, famous leaps of in­duction pulled off by the old man in his heyday, assassins inferred from cigar ash, horse thieves from the absence of a watchdog’s bark. Try as he might, the inspector could not find the way to a mute German jewboy from a missing par­rot and a corpse named Shane with a ventilated skull. And so he missed his opportunity to score a point off DC Quint.

Now the old man had a look at Mr. Jos. Black’s calling card, lips pursed, dragging it across a range of distances from the tip of his nose until he settled on one that would do.

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “So our Mr. Shane came upon young Panicker as he was making off with the poor boy’s pet, which he hoped to sell to this Mr. Black. And Shane at­tempted to prevent him from doing so, and so paid dearly for his heroism. Do I fairly summarize your view?”

Though this was in short the whole of his theory, from the first there had been something in it—something in the circumstances of the murder itself—that troubled the in­spector enough to send him, against the advice of his con­stable, calling on this half-legendary friend and adversary of his grandfather’s entire generation of policemen. Neverthe­less it had sounded a sensible enough theory, all in all. The old man’s tone, however, rendered it as likely as the agency of fairies.

“Apparently there were words between them,” the inspec­tor said, wincing as an ancient stammer resurfaced from the depths of his boyhood. “They quarreled. It came to blows.”

“Yes, yes. Well, I don’t doubt that you are right.”

The old man composed the seam of his mouth into the most insincere smile Inspector Bellows had ever seen.

“And, really,” he continued, “it is most fortunate that you require so little assistance from me, since, as you must know, I am retired. As indeed I have been since the tenth of August, 1914. At which time, you may take it from me, I was far less sunk in decrepitude than the withered carapace you now see before you.” He tapped the shaft of his stick juridically against the doorstep. They were dismissed. “Good day.”

And then, with an echo of the love of theatrics that had so tried the patience and enlivened the language of the in­spector’s grandfather, the old man tilted his face up to the sun, and closed his eyes.

The two policemen stood a moment, watching this shameless simulacrum of an afternoon nap. It crossed the inspector’s mind that perhaps the old man wished them to plead with him. He glanced at DC Quint. No doubt abject pleading with the mad old hermit was a step to which his late predecessor would never have been reduced. And yet how much there was to be learned from such a man if only one could— The eyes snapped open, and now the smile hardened into something more sincere and cruel.

“Still here?” he said.

“Sir—if I may—”

“Very well.” The old man chuckled dryly, entirely to himself. “I have considered the needs of my bees. And I be­lieve that I can spare a few hours. Therefore I will assist you.” He held up a long, admonishing finger. “To find the boy’s parrot.” Laboriously, and with an air that rebuffed in advance any offers of assistance, the old man, relying heav­ily on his scarred black stick, hoisted himself onto his feet. “If we should encounter the actual murderer along the way, well, then it will be so much the better for you.”


As a mystery fan, I felt Chabon played with the genre in The Final Solution, but didn’t do it justice. Reading it felt like the plot was following a how-to manual. From a literary perspective, there were probably dozens of references I missed, but some I got became more disturbing than satisfying. Obviously the protagonist is meant to be Holmes, although Chabon calls him the “old man.” Was the title an homage to Holmes’ last case, The Final Problem, by Arthur Conan Doyle? Or, is a reference to the holocaust? By the end, I didn’t care. Chabon has addressed the mystery genre in the way that a master violinist can pick up a cello and hammer out a tune. It’s time for Chabon to get back to a concerto that uses all his skills.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2005 issue of Executive Times


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