A Slight Trick of the Mind

ASTOTM017Written by Mitch Cullin — Just when you thought it impossible to find another workable seam in the Sherlock Holmes gold mine, along comes someone who has other ideas. It needs saying from the outset that this is as far removed from the standard Sherlock Holmes homage as it is possible to get. There is no crime, at least not in the conventional sense. There is no perpetrator. There are victims, certainly, but not of the evil that men do. The game is afoot for a short time only, and even then there is no Watson striding breathlessly in the wake of his friend.

There are three narratives in A Slight Trick of the Mind. In the first, chronologically, we are in the familiar surroundings of 221b Baker Street. It is 1902, and with the good doctor away at the seaside with his third wife, Holmes listens to the tale told by Mr Thomas R Keller. After his incredulity at Holmes’s customary powers of deduction, Keller relates his story. He has been married for two years to a beautiful and devoted wife, but their marriage has become strained after a miscarriage left Ann Keller unable to bear children. Hoping that a hobby might distract his wife from her grief, Keller arranges for her to have lessons on a fashionable instrument, the Glass Armonica. Ann’s tutor is a formidable German lady called Madame Schirmer, but when Keller suspects that she is having a malign influence on his wife, he turns to Holmes for help.

The second narrative sees an elderly Holmes making an extensive foreign trip, during which he visits India, Australia and, finally, Japan. It is 1947, and Japan is full of occupying troops, and is painstakingly trying to rebuild its society and economy. Holmes is the guest of Mr Umezaki, a man with whom he has exchanged letters for many years. One of the more striking juxtapositions in the book is that of the 93-year-old Holmes reflecting as he stands in the ruins of Hiroshima.

The third strand of the story sees Holmes back home, weeks after returning from his travels. Home is a rambling house on the Sussex Downs. Mrs Hudson is long since in her grave, and the housekeeper is the widowed Mrs Munro and her schoolboy son, Roger. Holmes mainly concerns himself with managing his apiary, and trying to keep track of his random efforts to organise his written reminiscences.

What follows is, in turn, spellbinding, beautiful and heartbreaking. The three narratives converge to deadly effect. As Holmes comes to terms with his own mental and physical decline, he is forced to confront his fallibility. An old tragedy has a cruel modern echo. Holmes feels himself culpable for the first death due to his lack of insight. A cruel trick of fate, very much in the present, leaves him examining both his soul and his conscience. We see a man who, like Ulysses before him, is made weak by time and fate. The writing is never less than gripping, a kind of dark poetry is never far from the surface, and despite being a long way from fitting into any conventional crime fiction genre, it is a book that any aficionado of Sherlock Holmes simply must read. Leaving aside the literary merit of the book, no expense has been spared in its production. It is beautifully printed and bound and it is a delight to actually hold in the hand. Despite my fulsome praise, I have reluctantly judged the book just short of full marks, as it will disappoint Holmes fans who look for crime, villains, deduction and the triumph of good over evil.

Canongate
Print/Kindle
£9.02

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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