20 June 2007

Michael Chabon - The Final Solution

Arthur Conan-Doyle is held in genuine respect and affection by 'serious' modern writers, less so for his style, which is limited and functional, than for being the creator (or major developer) of a genre, and for inspiring them to read as young boys. Recently a couple of the stars of modern fiction, Julian Barnes and Michael Chabon, have paid homage to ACD, Barnes by novelising a true incident in his life, and Chabon by writing a new Holmes story.

Neither, wisely, attempts to imitate ACD's style. Barnes's spare, emotionally precise prose is well-suited to portraying Doyle's inner-life and its repressions. Chabon's novella , while initially structured like a Holmes story, is written with an inward gaze that Doyle would not have considered. It's very much a Chabon story.

Sherlock Holmes (never named in the book) is now 89 and living out his long retirement keeping bees down in Sussex. He is called upon to help in a murder in the neighbouring vicarage (so far so cliched), and the disappearance of a parrot - animals are a classic Holmes story essential. With typical insight he dismisses the police's first suspect, and eventually tracks down the murderer, via a misdirection or two.

As a Holmes story, it isn't particularly satisfying. The slight twist at the end is neat and resonant, but doesn't really impact on the story in retrospect as it might. Chabon's strengths, of characterisation, emotional description and insight, work to make this a fun modern novella, but not a Doyle story.The no-nonsense Doyle approach - description and analysis, with a touch of wry humour, then into the action - loved by young boys precisely because of its emotional shallowness, is the style most suited to the genre. Chabon's ventriloquism overreaches when he has one chapter in the mind of the parrot. But I've no doubt though that Chabon's newest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, will succeed as his previous ones have.


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