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