‘The last word on Holmes in literary fiction’ – A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin

astotmmcIt’s 1947. Sherlock Holmes is 93. He has just returned to his farmhouse in Sussex, from a short holiday in Japan. We learn he has a housekeeper, Mrs Munro, who lives on the property with her young son, Roger, a quiet diligent boy who has been learning to look after Holmes’ apiary in his absence and – to Holmes’ intense delight – doing a great job. Holmes is forgetful, given to unexpected naps. There is both a diminishment of powers and a growing recognition that his perspective has changed, he no longer sees the value in some of the things he has done, he is more critical of himself, more self aware even as he is less self aware. He is dreaming too, dreaming the same dream possibly, in which he is stung in the throat, in which he chokes.

Roger, meanwhile, is, unbeknownst to Holmes, secretly inhabiting an attic space that Holmes believes is inviolate; he has been reading a story written by Holmes called The Glass Armonicist, a story that Holmes began in order to tell, in a real and true way, what actually happened in one of his investigations, without all of Watson’s tomfoolery and over dramatisation (although he comes to realise that some of that tomfoolery and over dramatisation is necessary). As Roger reads, so we read. It is the story of a younger Holmes (younger than 93 but older than any Holmes produced by Conan Doyle, a Holmes used to being treated on the street as a kind of celebrity, a Holmes who can no longer as easily slip into disguises as he once did, a Holmes who already can see versions of himself, younger versions of himself, inhabiting spaces that he – the version of Holmes telling the story – can no longer traverse as anonymously as he once did). A husband, Thomas R Keller, hires him to find out what his wife is doing – the couple lost a child, the wife was unconsolable, the husband encouraged her to take up the glass armonica, a curious glass instrument whose wailing lament was thought by some at the time to conjure the spirits of the departed. The wife becomes obsessed, tries to converse with the lost child, and the husband forbids the wife to play or to continue with her lessons – and yet, it seems she is continuing with her lessons – or is she? Meanwhile, Holmes is distracted by thoughts of his visit to Japan, at the invitation of a Mr Umezaki who seemed to share Holmes’ interest in the life (and memory) preserving qualities of royal jelly and prickly ash – and so we too follow Holmes as he journeys afresh, meeting Umezaki’s brother Hensuiro, staying in the house they share with a maid who in fact turns out to be Umezaki’s mother. Gradually another tale unfolds, as Holmes and Umezaki journey across Japan, taking in sights that are both beautiful and terrible, concerning Umezaki’s father and an apparent meeting with Holmes and Holmes’ brother Mycroft many years earlier.

We move, chapter by chapter, between the three locations – between Sussex, Japan and London – the writing beautiful, thoughtful, elegiac. Cullin’s Holmes is beautifully realised. The action, what action there is, moves at a stately pace. We are, after all, in the company, for the most part, of a 93 year old man. The vision we perhaps have in our heads of Holmes – of the sarcastic figure from Conan Doyle’s work, for instance, a man who often didn’t have the time for pleasantries and could affront people with his abrupt questioning, an abruptness that was sometimes tempered by Watson (who, Holmes informs us here, he only ever called John), who was only ever really interested in the challenge presented by the case, or not, as the case may be – is again tempered here. We see how rude Holmes could be in his dealings with Keller, but we also see – in his dealings with Roger and Umezaki but also eventually with his housekeeper – that Holmes has changed, as of course you would expect him to over the course of a life. There is a beautifully realised tenderness in his dealings with Roger, in particular, but also a wiser, calmer manifestation of his intelligence and acuity in his dealings with Umezaki and Hensuiro. Cullin sets up the three narratives to run parallel to one another and quite possibly the reader suspects that we will be treated to a novel that does what Conan Doyle’s books did, establishing puzzles and traps that Holmes then resolves – but this is the modern world, the world after the bomb, and resolution is not so easily found. At times, the novel feels like a profound rumination on ageing. At other times, a sort of stalled, bittersweet love story. At other times, it feels like the only kind of Sherlock Holmes story left to tell. There are moments of terrible, cruel sadness and tragedy and moments of awe and moments of intense beauty – and the intense beauty comes courtesy of both tremendous and powerful writing and also images, scenes, conjured into being in order to urgently restore Holmes to life, this one last time and we say this knowing that there are writers all over the world conjuring Holmes afresh over and over again – but do they need to, after A Slight Trick of the Mind? No, they don’t.

Any Cop?:  The last word on Holmes in literary fiction and, hopefully, a massive jolt to the career of Mitch Cullin.


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