Silent Days and Nights


The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
By Michael Chabon
131 pages. Fourth Estate/HarperCollins. $16.95.

Michael Chabon has written a valentine to another beloved genre of his childhood, but this love-letter is considerably shorter than his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Kavalier and Clay. The superheroes that animated Kavalier and Clay have given way to the cerebral, Victorian characters of the Sherlock Holmes books.

In The Final Solution, Chabon once again makes the shock waves of the Second World War reach across time and space. This time around, the silence of a Jewish orphan and the chatter of his German parrot are alternately jarring and harmonious in demonstrating the effects of the Good War.

The story opens with 89-year-old Sherlock Holmes, who is a beekeeper in the English countryside. Although Watson is nowhere to be found, Chabon brings Holmes out of retirement to solve one more mystery—the birdnapping of a German-speaking parrot named Bruno. Bruno belongs to Linus Steinman, a mute Jewish refugee boy, 12 years old and on his own in England. In the opening scene Holmes notices that Linus and his parrot are about to be electrocuted by the third rail on the train tracks. He saves the boy by warning him away, and his heroics are rewarded with an invitation to dinner at the boy’s boarding house.

Throughout the story Linus is mostly referred to as “the boy” and Holmes, who is never named, is his counterpart as “the old man.” The superficial anonymity of these two central characters beautifully dovetails with Chabon’s formal language—labyrinthine sentences and phrases strung together with commas and hyphens. This experimentation with language and characterization reflects Chabon’s commitment to genre fiction.

Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold and damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter—newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs—that made treacherous the crossing of  his parlor, and open his front door to the world.

Chabon’s attention to genre fiction is also an important development in his art as well as an example of what he calls “trickster literature.” In trickster literature, themes that have been commonly thought of as “lowbrow” are given “highbrow” treatment through language and metaphor. Chabon’s contribution to the ongoing Sherlock Holmes’ enterprise is a case in point. Wandering the countryside, the storied detective first appears as “nothing but a flapping shadow, a tumbling sheet of oilcloth blown from on top of some farmer’s woodpile, empty and uninhabited…the sheet resolved itself into a cloak and claws, a great bat of brown tweed flapping toward him. It was a man, the old man, the old beekeeper, lurching into the road with his long pale face, arms awhirl. A huge frantic moth…” Chabon’s flourishes of language also give added weight to the facts that a parrot has disappeared, the dead man has something to do with that disappearance, and the old man’s engagement in discovering the link between the two.

Linus and his parrot live among eccentrics. Chief among them are the boarding house proprietors who are cleverly named the Panickers—as in the Reverend and his bedraggled wife. While dining with Linus and his fellow boarders, the old man takes in the fact that the parrot recites numbers in German and that one boarder, Mr. Shane, dutifully copies them down. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time is that Mr. Shane will be found dead in the morning.

Bruno’s recitation is a mystery. Is the bird passing on German war codes? Is he reciting the numbers of Swiss bank accounts? Linus, whose parents were murdered in a concentration camp, is not talking. Was Mr. Shane, a dairy equipment salesman, in fact a spy? And if so, whose side was he on?  While Chabon is cool about answering these questions, in the final analysis the mystery surrounding them is not altogether compelling. The old man’s chief strategy in solving this mystery is dependent on small kindnesses and big coincidences. For example, a distraught Reverend Panicker who is also on his way to London to find Bruno happens upon the old man walking on the road and gives him a ride into the bombed out city.

The war and the Holocaust creep into the edges of the novella. The book’s title alludes to the cause of Linus’ traumatic muteness as well as to the last days of a once world-class detective. The moral beauty and intellectual vigor of the novella is not found in pursuing a solution to the mystery, but in conundrums such as the one faced by Bruno the parrot. In the book’s most intriguing chapter, Bruno, who ends up in London, has been stuffed into a sack and thrown into a closet. His situation veers away from the absurd towards the elegiac.

Bruno held his head steady, but his pulse quickened at the sound. He was fond of alphabets; they were intensely pleasurable to sing. He remembered Linus singing his alphabet, in the tiny errant voice of his first vocalizations. The memory was poignant, and the urge to repeat his ABC bubbled and rose in Bruno until it nearly overwhelmed him, until his claws ached for the give of the boy’s slim shoulder. But he remained silent.

This sort of literary vibrato is the result of an exciting foray into genre fiction as well as an example of Chabon’s extraordinary powers as a writer. In The Final Solution the silence of a young boy, the silence of an old man facing his decline and the silence of the Jews of Europe come together in a symphony of unspeakable tragedy. And Michael Chabon, a literary master with a distinct Jewish sensibility, is a superb conductor.