The book is a revisionist account of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in retirement. I have always enjoyed Sherlock. I read all the books in my youth and have enjoyed most of the films. I saw the film adaptation of Cullin’s novel Tideland. It was directed by the extraordinary Terry Gilliam and stars Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, and Jennifer Tilly, but it didn’t do well at the box office. That might be because the story is so odd. That book is about a girl who is taken away by her father to an isolated farmhouse where she finds herself in a bizarre fantasy world where only her dolls’ heads keep her company. Add into the mix a mentally damaged man and a ghost-like woman and the separation between imagination and reality disappears.
In A Slight Trick of the Mind, it is 1947 and the long-retired Holmes lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse. He is not the man we knew in the stories in which Dr. Watson embellished the man and the cases. He never wears a deerstalker cap (prefers a top hat) and doesn’t smoke a pipe (cigars). He has a housekeeper. She has a young son who idolizes Holmes. He likes to tend to his bees. He writes in his journal.
I can identify with this old Holmes, especially when he confronts his diminishing mental abilities.
People still come to him looking for answers. He decides to revisit a case and it helps him answer his own personal big remaining questions.
Maybe some hardcore Arthur Conan Doyle fans reject any updating of alternate versions of Sherlock. I am okay with them. Doyle allowed the detective to retire to Sussex but others have put him back to work.
I liked Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, which is somewhat similar to the Cullin Holmes framework. It has the old detective (at 89) living in Sussex with his bees too. The locals generally know he was once a famous detective, but he has little interest in solving mysteries. The game is afoot once more though when a young mute boy who has escaped from Nazi Germany comes to him. The boy’s companion is an African gray parrot that keeps repeating strings of German numbers. Are they a Nazi code or some Swiss bank account or something far worse?
Laurie R. King has many mysteries on her book list including several in the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series. In this version of Holmes, he is married. In her book, Dreaming Spies (the only one of hers I have read), they travel to India and Japan by boat and solve a mystery along the way. Personally, I found that this was too far away from the Holmes who lives in my mind to be a comfortable read. (A friend who is a fan of the series has told me to try the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen.)
In Nicholas Meyer’s novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the conceit is that Meyer has “rediscovered” a Sherlock Holmes adventure recorded by Watson. It tells about a collaboration of Holmes and Sigmund Freud in the solution of a conspiracy which will affect the lives of millions of people. The story involves Professor Moriarty and his brother Mycroft Holmes. It reveals (no spoiler) where Sherlock was during that period when we all believed him to be dead.
The title is a reference to Holmes’s addiction to cocaine which was in the original stories (see Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four”) because he describes the cocaine he uses as “a seven-per-cent solution.”
You can tell that Meyer loves the characters. In fact, I think he is more fond and respectful of Watson than Conan Doyle is in the last Holmes tales. He has also published a followup, The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D. and then a third, The Canary Trainer.
Although some of these non-Doyle authors’ tales seem far away from the originals, most of them do use bits and loose ends from the originals. In Canary, we see Sherlock after he has left his therapy with Sigmund Freud and has taken up residence in Paris where he is a pit musician (violin, of course) at the Paris Opera. I rank the three books in quality in the order that they were published.
Back to Cullin. There are three paths the story travels in A Slight Trick of the Mind. The first takes place after Holmes’ return from a trip to Japan. He was searching there for a prickly ash bush that he believed gives longevity to add to his beloved royal jelly (the beekeeper in him) that he used in earlier stories.
There is also Holmes in 1947 Japan. He visits Hiroshima, post-atomic bomb which he compares to a hive that has lost its queen. That’s what he tells Roger, the 14 year-old son of his housekeeper who he is teaching beekeeping. This paternal Holmes is not one you expect based on the earlier stories.
The third story path comes from his writing about his infatuation with a married woman many years ago. It is an irrational infatuation that he knows is unlike him.
And it all comes together.
I found this the most interesting of the “new” Holmes books. This Sherlock is minus his Mycroft and John. (“You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John.”) Both dead. He has his beekeeping, his writing (journal, articles, letters).
He is trying to finish his version of the case concerning that mysterious young woman. She played a glass armonica (AKA glass harmonica, bowl organ, or hydrocrystalophone). It’s an unusual musical instrument made of spinning glass disks on a common shaft (lower notes from the larger disks to the left descending in size and rising in tone.
The name comes from harmonia, the Greek word for harmony and the sound comes by means of friction. Is there symbolism there?
Holmes has staying power. I was hardly alone in enjoying the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock that brought him into our time. I haven’t gotten into watching the U.S. television series of a modern-day Holmes, Elementary, but it has completed 3 seasons.
Have we figured out what it is about Mr. Holmes that appeals to us? Should we try to figure it out?