Sunday, June 04, 2006

Why are we so fascinated by the idea of an aging Sherlock Holmes? Is it because we see our own mental powers linked to his popular theatrical tricks of the brain, and want to be assured that they will continue despite the inevitable physical deterioration of the rest of the body?
Laurie R. King’s ground-breaking series about a 60ish Holmes married to a much younger American woman and Michael Chabon’s flimsy and over-rated The Final Solution are only the tip of a geriatric iceberg.
Whoever it was that first made Holmes a beekeeper in his old age, Mitch Cullin caps that achievement -- by causing us to believe every detail of the former detective’s fascination with the insects he has looked after for 44 years in his stone house in the tiny town of Cuckmere Haven on the Sussex Downs. The 93-year-old Holmes, with long white hair and a full white beard, has as his morning meal “royal jelly spread upon fried bread.” He knows everything there is to know about how to lessen the pain of a bee sting – which becomes a sad and important point later in the story. When we first see him, walking with the help of two canes, Holmes has just returned from a tiring, fascinating trip to Japan (including the ruins of Hiroshima) just after World War II; he went to Kobe at the invitation of a fellow bee enthusiast, although his host, Mr. Umezaki, had an additional agenda – a mystery possibly linked to Holmes’s past.
Cullin’s distant, preoccupied former detective is as far from the tense and edgy Holmes of Conan Doyle as can be imagined: he takes some pleasure in telling people who pester him about his legendary adventures that John (no Dr. Watson here) liked to confuse fact and fiction. But that was years ago; the good doctor, enriched by his share of the royalties, has been laid to rest by his third wife. Now Holmes (who never wore a deerstalker and who smokes Jamaican cigars and the occasional handmade cigarettes rather than a pipe) tends to his bees, passing on his knowledge to Roger, his war-widowed housekeeper’s young son with whom he has a touching relationship. He also works on several books which he’ll probably never finish, including a final volume of his massive encyclopedia of criminal behavior. Looking through Holmes’s papers, Roger discovers one unusual, fictionalized case history, about a mysterious woman who played a musical instrument called a glass armonica. It goes a long way to making this version of Holmes even more understandable.
Conan Doyle used to complain, perhaps with some degree of jealousy, that most people believed Sherlock Holmes was a real person and he was only the stenographer who wrote the stories down. Cullin, a gifted poet and novelist, takes that confusion and turns it into the highest level of art.