Monday, 12 July 2010


I finally caught up with this exquisite novella, originally published in the Paris Review in 2003, and find myself in some ways haunted by it. The most interesting thing about this tale of an 89 year old Sherlock Holmes, however, is that Chabon never once calls him Holmes--thereby avoiding the Conan Doyle Estate, which is usually credited (and presumably paid) on Holmes pastiches.

And this is a brilliant Holmes pastiche--especially as it's 'updating' the character, as it were, to act like a hermit-like 89 year old. That the actual 'puzzle' and its clues turn out to be rather mundane, indeed something the younger Holmes might have seen immediately, the way in which he reminds us of his younger talents is perfectly done.

And if the actual puzzle is rather simple, the over-arching secret, of what information the parrot actually holds, is brilliantly ambiguous, though the shadow of the book's title hangs over it all the time. This works because Chabon has built up a rich metaphoric sturcture, not least with Holmes' bees, to put the Second World War and the crimes of Nazi Germany into context, and also because that metaphor extends in many ways to the present day.

At heart, however, it's a piece of bravura writing, a beautifully structured mood, a playful but serious imagining of a famous character, and a touching little story in the end. Chabon seems energized by pop culture, and able to turn that energy into something beyond exploitation, and that's a rare talent.

It's also fascinating, in this context, to see the way the book was marketed (remembering that at no time was Sherlock Holmes mentioned). The original US hardcover, from Fourth Estate (shown above, on the left), featured the parrot, and the numerical cyphers at the center of the story, as if this were a post-modern exercise in meta-fiction. Which in fairness, it in some ways is.

The British Fourth Estate hardback (above, right) also used the parrot, but without the cyphers, and included the line 'a novel of detection' and among the three figures included in the bands across the front was one looking about as much like Holmes as it would be possible to be without actually using a Sidney Paget drawing.

The edition I read was the Harper Perennial paperback (illustrated top right), which includes interviews and feature material, designed to help it be used for study. Its cover reflects that, using something that literally might be English nostalgia but powerfully recalls vivid Holocaust images, not least those of any number of recent films. But when the book was issued in its straight forward Harper Collins paperback (left), the Nazi imagery was far more direct. I remember once being told that putting a swastika on a book cover increased sales by 10-15%, and this cover makes it look like a Jack Higgins novel.

I think the US hardcover is the cleverest, and perhaps in terms of what Chabon is doing, the best. But the Harper Perennial shot is by far the most effective in conveying the tone of the story. But it would be interesting to learn which ones sold the best, though how you might measure that (against expectations, say) I'm not quite sure. If someone has the numbers, however, I'd be happy to try.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial, 2006, £6.99 ISBN 0007196032


chofetzchayim said...

esShalom & Boker tov...I am keenly interested in obtaining a copy of the UK Fourth Estate hardback edn. with the different cover than the U.S. edn., and a copy of the HarperCollins paperback with its different cover. Thus far, I have had no luck.
STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham

chofetzchayim said...

Shalom & Erev tov...I have prepared a complete publishing history of
Rav Chabon's novel (English) with ISBNs etc. modelled after Richard Green's paradigms. I have no way of sending it to you.
STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham