Such a title conjures up images and words of horror and suffering, namely in the form of the Holocaust and in a way the Holocaust is a subtle, delicately interwoven but also pervasive element of the plot, despite this detective story taking place in Sussex 1944. The novel opens with an elderly man warning a boy not to relieve himself on the train tracks, which would have led to him and his parrot, an African Grey, being electrocuted. Although nameless throughout, the elderly man, who was once a famous London based private detective, is easily identifiable to any crime fiction reader. The appearance of the boy ‘aroused his sense – a faculty at one time renowned throughout Europe – of promising anomaly’. Moreover, when the boy does not talk, only his parrot, who recites a string of numbers in German, it is written that this ‘was another anomaly. As for what it promised, this the old man – though he had once made his fortune and his reputation through a long and brilliant series of extrapolations from unlikely groupings of facts – could not, could never have begun to foretell.’ The old man also reads the British Bee Journal and keeps bees. By now you can no doubt guess who the mystery fictional detective is. A minor and perhaps overlooked mystery of the novel is indeed the cause of the boy’s (called Linus Steinman) loss of or unwillingness to speak.
Early in the tale we find out that Linus is a Jewish refugee who is staying at a boarding house run by Mrs Panicker, who is married to vicar and has a son, the typical bad hat, called Reggie. Mr Shane and Mr Parkins also board within Mrs Panicker’s home. The parrot, who is called Bruno causes a certain amount of interest within the household, singing Austrian/German songs and of course reciting numbers. It is the latter which holds the greatest fascination for the householders Parkin and Shane. Although one of the lines the parrot does sing from a song: ‘Wien Wien Wien Sterbende Märchenstadt’ appears to originate from an actual song I think, which can be listened to below:
With the usual hints of suspicion and signs of antagonism, it is unsurprising that in chapter 3 Inspector Bellows and Constable Quint are calling on the “old man” for advice on the murder of Mr Shane, who was killed en route to his car. They also asked him about the disappearance of Linus’ parrot who it seems Mr Shane was attempting to take with him. Despite having arrested Reggie, who not only disliked Mr Shane, but also had cause for wanting to sell the parrot, the police remain unsure. For the sake of the boy and finding the parrot, our retired detective takes on the case, investigating the scene of the crime and interviewing suspects. At the heart of the investigation is the parrot and the series of numbers it spoke and why characters such as Mr Parkins are taking such an interest in it. Throughout the story different characters suppose the numbers mean different things: bank account details, cipher codes. As the reader we are privileged to a few clues from the thoughts of the parrot itself, who in a dramatic denouement narrates one of the chapters. Yet despite the often clear-cut nature of detective novels, this is one mystery which is not conclusively solved and can only infer the horrors these numbers refer to. However, the ending is not entirely inconclusive as our famous sleuth does track down the killer, with Linus’ help.
This ending is crucial to the way Chabon portrays detection and detective work, as the fact that one of the central mysteries is not solved by the incomparable detective makes the novel’s title an ironic one, as there is not a final solution. Our detective reflects on his failure and yet perhaps because of all of the things he has been through, is able to see that not every mystery needs to be answered:
‘it was not… a familiar or comfortable admission for the old man to make. The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings…. [but troubled by analysts and cipher crackers] that it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African grey parrot.’
This last line is particularly ironic as of course the parrot does hold the answer to the mystery of the numbers. Moreover, the malleability of the truth is also a key idea linked to detective work, outlined at the outset of the novel with the introductory quote by Mary Jo Salter:
The distinction’s always fine between detection and invention.
Contrary to the view posited by Judith Flanders in her work: The Invention of Murder (2011), detective writing is not about certainty here, but instead the suggestion is that detection requires a person to use imagine to recreate the past or the crime, which is exemplified by the characters’ various interpretations of the numbers spoken by the parrot.
In a way, many of the traits we associate with Holmes are there in the figure of the old man with his ‘raptor gaze’ and his ‘hunger… for information’. Yet interestingly there is also a fairy tale quality added to his character, especially in his relations with the boy, Linus. For example, when offering the boy sweets at their first meeting, the old man perceives himself as appearing potentially malevolent: ‘licking his dry lips with potent ogreishness’. Another essential theme is the effect age has had on his powers, which certainly physically have diminished. When the police first talk with him, they imagine he is past it. Although not entirely true, our detective does have signs of memory failure and at the exposition of the novel I found a powerful image which perhaps refers to this decrease in mental agility:
‘It was an ancient glass the old man peered through, rich with ripples and bubbles that twisted and toyed with the world outside’
The glass arguably represents Holmes’ own perceptions and how age and experience have influenced and altered them.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, the theme of Holocaust is present within the novel. Some, such as Canales (2013), see this story as a Holocaust narrative with Linus as the central character and with repeated motifs such as the presence of trains, the string of numbers the parrot squawks and the loss of voice Linus encounters. Set at the end of World War Two, references literal and metaphorical pervade such as Shane’s death being likened to a bomb and the emotional failings of the vicar to bombed out houses in London. Moreover, the way Linus is described also emphasises how the war reaches into everything, saying that ‘the lookouts in the head of Linus Steinman had been left unmanned.’ Yet, because Linus’ voice is mainly absent from the novel, the suffering he has undergone is silent, with other characters including the parrot filling in some of the missing pieces. Even his face speaks of unvoiced inexpressible pain: ‘face was like a blank back page from the book of human sorrow’. The muteness of Linus is something I found I took for granted quickly into the tale, giving it little thought. However, the ending of the novel made me look again at Linus’ chosen silence and critics such as Canales (2013) argue it is part of the Holocaust narrative being written:
As if the speakability/muteness dichotomy, a major feature of Holocaust narratives, tried to reveal ambivalence, a struggle between the impossibility to express the horrors of the Holocaust and the obligation to do so.
In addition, in the chapter where the parrot’s point of view is considered, it is indicated how much power is attached to the choice to speak, to not speak and what to say, as the parrot is able to influence the behaviour of others through his choice of words. Moreover, we get to see the pain and pleasure attached to words and songs and how wanting to speak can incur both these emotions simultaneously. Throughout the novel Bruno, the parrot and Linus are devoted companions and I think in this particular chapter, this bond is further developed, with Bruno in a way embodying Linus’ own emotional conflicts, concerning his parents and past experiences.
Although by the end of the novel, the mystery of the numbers has not been officially solved, its’ story not explicitly expressed, some healing has begun to take place for Linus, whose relationship with Mrs and Mr Panicker grows through the crisis of Mr Shane’s death.
Rating: 4/5 (I really enjoyed this book, however, I think some parts were a little rushed/under developed due to the brevity of the tale).
Canales, G. (2013). Holocaust Imagery in Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution . AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary. IX (1), Available at: http://americanaejournal.hu/vol9no1/sanchez-canales
A parrot being integral to the plot. That’s different. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. I’ve put it on list to buy later (especially when the price drops).
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Thankfully I managed to get my copy second hand (ex-library). Yeah the parrot was certainly different, as it’s usually, (as far as I have seen), cats and dogs who feature more predominantly in crime fiction. For me the best part was the point where the parrot’s thoughts narrate one of the chapters, as it brought a completely new perspective on the story and what had gone on before.
[…] best read was The Final Solution (2004) by Michael Chabon, which is set during WW2 and features Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock […]
Hi. I really enjoyed your perspectives on the book, “The Final Solution” by Michael Chabon. We are reading this for our newly established “book club”. A group of 4 households in my neighborhood meet monthly for dinner and conversation. Three households contain 4 avid readers. We are not avid fiction readers, but would like to try. We do, however, enjoy foreign movies and theater.
I find this story intriguing. Yet the writing is so dense that I feel the need to stop and create a story map/visual organizer beginning with character names and descriptions that are revealed as the plot progresses. I’ve only read 2 chapters and we’re discussing the entire book this weekend. If you could offer any suggestions for my reading as I continue, I would appreciate them. My partner is an English-learner and has given up because the vocabulary is so foreign to him and the author’s style so… “Victorian?”— if that word can explain my perspective. I’ve never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, but I imagine this is the style Chabon has adopted as an homage to Doyle in this text. Is there a study guide you can recommend? I have to reread some passages 3-4 times to understand what is occurring or to whom the author is referring at times, because of the complexity of his sentences. I do savor each phrase and don’t want some guide that spells out the plot, but one that asks me to consider questions which refer me to certain aspects of the characters, plot, themes, etc., as the story progresses. Thanks!
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Glad you enjoyed my review of The Final Solution. The language in Chabon’s work might be reflective of Doyle’s, though I hadn’t noticed this. However I am probably so used to reading novels in this style that it isn’t noticeable to me any more. I don’t know of any reading guides for this particular book but some areas of discussion you could look at in your book group are:
1. What role do you think the parrot has in the story? (Consider the fact that we are privy to some of the parrot’s thoughts at the end of the story. Also you could think about the rlationship between the animals and humans in the story).
2. How is old age presented or perceived in the story, through the character of Holmes?
3. What role does the Holocaust have in the story and what effect does it have on the characters, especially Linus?
4. Some elements of the case Holmes is investigating are never solved, as certain information is not found. How does this contrast with the title, The Final Solution, which suggests certainty? Do you like novels which end with certainty or do you like more open ended novels?
5. Which characters do you identify or sympathise with?
Another thing you could do is read a short story by Doyle and compare how Holmes appears in this story with his appearance in The Final Solution.
Asking a bookoholic for book suggestions is always dangerous thing to do, but here are a few suggestions for other novels your book group could read, not all of which are detective novels.
1. The President’s Hat by Antoin Laurain
2. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
3. The Library of Unrequited Library by Sophie Divry
4. Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
5. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw by Eva Weaver
6. The Dinner by Herman Koch
7. The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum
8. The Chinese Chop by Juanita Sheridan
9. Death of Anton by Alan Melville
10. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Hope this helps!
Thank you for responding. Yes, your questions are specially helpful! I found A study guide on the publishers website, so I’ll use it in conjunction with your questions as I read through the book. I will also submit your suggestions for new reading selections to the group and we have dinner on Sunday. Cheers!
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Such an insightful review. Loved your perceptions on the book. So many nuances I missed out on. It has made me want to read the book again with these things in mind.
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Thank you! It’s great to hear the review has been of use.