The clients who walked into the study at 221B Baker Street had one thing in common: questions. For the most part, Sherlock Holmes successfully provided them with answers — that is, after all, the job of the detective in a detective story. But Mitch Cullin’s lovely, melancholy new Holmes novel, “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” is not a detective story; it’s a work of literary fiction, and as such it’s much more interested in the mysteries Holmes can never solve.
Like Michael Chabon’s recent “The Final Solution,” Cullin’s novel finds Holmes very late in life and wrestling with a view of humanity fundamentally changed by World War II. Now 93 and retired to a farmhouse on the Sussex coast, Holmes raises bees and potters away at his two great works: “The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture” and the four-volume magnum opus “The Whole Art of Detection.” Every morning he eats royal jelly spread on toast; the “documentation and firsthand knowledge of such rare, possibly life-extending nourishment” has become “the chief pursuit of his solitary years.”
Try as he might, though, Holmes is failing. His memory turns up unsettling gaps and glitches and his powers of observation are not what they once so formidably were. For anybody, such changes would be distressing, but Holmes — a man for whom intellect has been everything — feels that his very identity is crumbling away.
Cullin sets up two parallel relationships to further test Holmes’ limits, not so much as a detective but as a man. In Sussex, Holmes teaches Roger, the hero-worshipping 13-year-old son of his housekeeper, how to keep bees. In Japan, where Holmes travels in search of an herb said to promote longevity, he stays with Mr. Umezaki, a 50ish man who presents himself as an enthusiast of the plant. Both Roger and Umezaki have lost their fathers, and both secretly long for Holmes to fill some of the void left by their losses.
They have, alas, come to the wrong place. For if countless real boys of all ages have looked to the Great Detective as a paragon, Holmes himself has grown painfully aware of his own shortcomings. The man the late Dr. Watson once described as possessing a “cold, precise” mind “impervious to the softer passions” now feels the pangs of his own peculiar and inescapable loneliness. That awareness is tied to an encounter 45 years earlier with a doomed, haunted woman whom he has never been able to forget.
“A Slight Trick of the Mind” proceeds in a circling, unchronological manner that would have driven its subject mad with impatience, but so be it. Most of us are not cold, precise or impervious to the softer passions Cullin evokes so stealthily and to such final, piercing effect. The novel seems to be a slightly disjointed series of vivid yet enigmatic scenes — a walk with Mr. Umezaki through the ashy ruins of a garden in Hiroshima, a performance by an itinerant musician amid the dunes of a Japanese beach, the search through a grassy Sussex meadow for the truth behind an unfathomable tragedy.
It’s only in the last pages of “A Slight Trick of the Mind” that all these elements resolve into a single, layered emotional chord. It works a little like a rare musical instrument played by the woman Holmes met and became preoccupied with back in 1902, a device called the armonica. The musician runs her moistened fingers around the rims of a series of rotating glass bowls of different sizes, causing each bowl to sound a different note, with each note sustainable for as long as the musician likes and coloring all the notes sounded before it. This produces “glass music” so eerie that, as Holmes explains, the instrument was once banned in Germany due to its unpredictable influence on people’s moods. “A Slight Trick of the Mind” may not be quite so dangerously potent, but the spell it casts lingers as persistently as the armonica’s strange, mournful tones.
Our next pick: A story of parentless children who will never have children and will not make it past middle age