A Slight Trick of the Mind
In 1947, ninety-three-year-old Sherlock Holmes embarks on a final journey to postwar Japan and ends up drawn into another mystery: helping Mr. Umezaki discover the fate of his long-lost father. Meanwhile, back in England, the son of Holmes’s housekeeper finds an incomplete manuscript, Holmes’s own account of one of his unpublished “adventures,” which he reads over and over to try to gain some insight into the great detective’s mind and heart. Cullin interweaves the threads of these two narratives with a third, that of the relationship between the boy and his father-surrogate Holmes. This triptych provides the reader with good, believable insight into the mind of one of the most enigmatic characters in literature.
Cullin pays obvious homage to Conan Doyle’s literary style at times: the sweeping landscape of Sussex Downs is rendered vividly and beautifully, and the tension builds at a good pace throughout the first two-thirds of the book. The narrative itself is more modern, shifting back and forth between England and Japan, past and present, though Holmes’s perspective dominates. We get several insights into Holmes’s psyche, his ambiguous sexuality, his views of himself, friends and family, and the world around him. Yet the conclusions we draw from these aren’t much more enlightening than what comes through in Conan Doyle’s original tales; it’s like Cullin has turned up the volume on Holmes, but not really taken him apart. The “mystery” of Umezaki Sr. as well as Holmes’s long-ago case of “The Glass Armonicist” seem to unravel to dissatisfying conclusions, after such strong and captivating beginnings. No doubt this is intentional, significant not only to Holmes’s life but to ours as well: the conclusion very often isn’t as good as the beginning, and only in one of Watson’s fictionalized tales can we expect a neat and happy ending.