I’ve liked all that I’ve read by Michael Chabon in the past, and this short novel or novella seemed like one I’d enjoy. It’s a mystery story featuring an unnamed but obvious Sherlock Holmes near the end of his life, living in a rural area as a beekeeper, as Holmes’ creator A. Conan Doyle suggested as his retirement. It takes place in 1944, and Holmes is presented with two intertwined mysteries, or perhaps three.
First, he meets and befriends a young refugee boy living with a family nearby. The boy cannot speak, and cannot understand English, but responds to German. The other unusual thing about him is his pet and constant companion, an African parrot who is a frequent talker in several languages. His most common offering is a list of apparently random numbers.
In the rooming house run by a minister and his wife where the boy lives, we meet a man who has an intense interest in the parrot, Bruno, This man, Mr. Shane, is apparently murdered outside the rooming house while attempting to steal the parrot, which cannot be found afterward. The boy is devastated at the loss of his friend. Holmes is called in to help solve the murder by local police, but his true motive is to find the parrot. He suspects one goal will lead to the resolution of the other.
I enjoyed reading this, but as a Sherlock Holmes homage or pastiche it doesn’t work for me, and here’s why. Doyle was always careful to keep us out of the inner thoughts and emotions of Holmes, except by inference and the insights of his companion, Dr. Watson. Here, Chabon tells much of the story from inside Holmes’ head, and we learn all about his sadness at the handicaps of age, his feelings and emotions about being less than he once was. It feels like a betrayal to me, and so antithetical to the Doyle stories, all of which I reread a few years ago, that I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked. That may be just my own reaction, yours may differ, of course. The story itself is well crafted and satisfying in other ways, but I can only mildly recommend it.