“Genus and Species”: Sherlock Holmes’s Old Age

The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable and distinct as the separated stones of a featureless grey shingle.

The Final Solution

I read Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution five years ago, when it was first published, but it is better than I remembered. It is profoundly elegiac, emphasising again and again its protagonist’s decrepitude, the short time left to his broken body, and that body’s increasing uselessness in the interim. The 89 year-old man at the centre of this tender novella, of course, is Sherlock Holmes. It is 1944, and Holmes has been in retirement on the South Downs longer than he was in practice on Baker Street; he has come to spend almost all of his time with his bees. He is as much a myth amongst the local populace as the half-mad hermit as he is across a nation which has half-forgotten the great detective’s exploits.

When he visits London, in search of a young Jewish boy’s lost parrot, Holmes is astounded not so much by the destruction of the Blitz but by the city’s remarkable resilience: it has not died, but changed. Characters in the story lament a fading Empire, and Holmes is a relic of an earlier time of rectitude and colonialism, as distant to his fellow villagers as the age of Shakespeare. It’s a moving setting for a Holmes story, and though the old man finds some of his old fire, he is within this mise en scene a diminished figure.

The Holocaust hovers, undiscovered, over the narrative; but, of course, it is also the unsolvable mystery, a horror so awful that it is beyond the human reason of which Holmes is so noted a champion. The detective has the sense of all this, and has grown fatalistic in his old age: “One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things.” [pg. 125]

Thus the elegy: Chabon’s affection for the Holmes stories shines through this narrative, offering a last hurrah for a man who defies the post-modernism of our own fractured world. It’s also full of Chabon’s dry wit, possessing a wryness fitting for a pastiche. If it is hard to see Sherlock Holmes in his dotage, it warms the heart to see him still willing and able as late as the Second World War – and comforting to know there is still humour and humanity in an age which would baffle his love of unity.

3 comments
  1. I was wondering about this one actually. Older Holmes is an interesting figure. There were some TV movies made about him (With Christopher Lee in the role) but I think they were little more than excuses for older British actors to go on a jolly.

    Have you tried Theroux’s Mycroft Holmes book? Is that any good?

  2. danhartland said:

    Yes, the most prominent thing about The Final Solution is, as I say, how very unjolly it Holmes is. Although his irrascibility, theatricality and self-criticism are all still very much in vibrant evidence.

    Haven’t read Paperchase, no – must do so…

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