Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Final Solution: A Novel of Detection

The Final Solution: A Novel of Detection by Michael Chabon

A novella, my second reading from this author after The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Similarly, the work takes on the mode of a detective story to deconstruct and uniquely revision norms of the detective mystery. In this case, it's a story of an unnamed detective that's clearly Sherlock Holmes coming out of his long retirement, very old, to solve an intriguing mystery connected to a refugee from Nazi Europe. He solves the immediate mystery with one last case, but never figures out the wider darkness of what's happening in the twentieth century.

It's fairly grim stuff. Partly the backdrop to the Holocaust, that's never really understood here and so signals a failure of nineteenth century rationalism to even approach, much less confront, the horrors of twentieth century politics. Even more forceful was how poignant the picture of an old Sherlock Holmes was--long in retirement, all his friends and familiar scene passed away, appalled by the violence and structure of the police, and feeling the ravages of time on his own body. In this last element in particular, as the detective struggles just too rise, there's a real pending mortality and feebleness exerted against a brilliant mind. It's not just an extension of Sherlock Holmes stories, instead it's a picture Doyle plainly would never have imagined, and it brings the keen inquisitive story into a more critical relation to modernity and itself.

The intensity of the main disconnect from the assumptions of what Holmes can do makes for some very effective moments, and the main motif is well born out by the high quality prose and striking moments of dialog. As well, there is a type of heroism that emerges here, a man not effortlessly applying his intellect as a game to solve crimes but someone out of place in the world, visibly shown to be awkward on multiple levels that he's still alive, who nevertheless is driven by an interest in figuring out the obscure and helping the victimized. As shown in the story that's ultimately not enough--it's not enough to save the Jews from genocide, or to arrest the slow deterioration of an iconic figure, and the account remains very tragic. It's not depicted as meaningless, however.

Similar to and better than: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon. Both works show an inventive premise, strong characterization and good writing, but the longer novel wearies of its premise after a bit, and ultimately demonstrates weak and overly conventional worldbuilding. For it to work one needs to accept the world as depicted, and Chabon's perspective shows an overly static and constrained setting. In contrast, The Final Solution only requires us to believe in the Sherlock Holmes narrative, the twentieth century and their point of intersection, and that makes for a more effective project.

Similar to and worse than: Drawing a blank at the moment. There are other detective-type stories I've enjoyed more, but those tend to be because of particularly interesting setting or SFnal elements, in terms of the interrogation of the notion of detectives themselves I don't see much direct comparison.

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