"A Slight Trick of the Mind"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 15, 2005)
"His fears and desires were, at some point, one and the same: the forgetfulness increasingly plaguing him, startling him awake, gasping, a sense of the familiar and safe turning against him, leaving him helpless and exposed and struggling for air; the forgetfulness also subduing the despairing thoughts, muting the absence of those he could never see again, grounding him in the present, where all he might want or need was at hand."
Mitch Cullin, who has studied Sherlock Holmes ever since he was a child, has written a fascinating portrait of Holmes at the end of his life as Holmes, now ninety-three, tries to cope with the indignities of old age and the forgetfulness which accompanies it. It is now 1947, and Dr. Watson has been dead for many years. Having given up his Baker Street residence to live in a small country house in rural Sussex, Holmes is now tended by a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her 14-year-old son Roger. He spends much of his day tending to his bees or working upstairs in his study writing a book on beekeeping and the third volume of The Art of Detection.
Though he almost did not hire Mrs. Munro because she has a young son, he has gradually grown fond of young Roger, who is Holmes's devoted admirer, and he now looks forward to teaching Roger the art of beekeeping and helping him to discover the glories of the scientific life. Frail and dependent upon two canes to get around, Holmes is dedicated to the pursuit of longevity and believes that the royal jelly from his hives is one of the keys to long life.
Holmes's domestic life in Sussex is the focus of one of the plot lines here, emphasizing Holmes as a personality and as a man, who, to the best of everyone's knowledge, has never been in love, never allowed his emotions to govern his behavior, and never shown a soft or sentimental side. His growing affection for Roger is touching, as is his ability to articulate his problems with forgetfulness and his difficulties with the sometimes fleeting present, though the past is still vibrantly alive.
Having just returned from a trip through India and Australia on his way to postwar Japan, where he is interested in discovering the life-giving properties of the prickly ash plant, he reminisces about his host, Tamiki Umezaki, with whom he has taken a trip to devastated Hiroshima, searching for the prickly ash and visiting a contemplative garden. Umezaki confides that he has always wondered whatever happened to his father, a diplomat who was supposed to be working in England when World War II broke out. One of his last communications with his son indicated that he had met with the great Sherlock Holmes, though Holmes no longer remembers the man. Holmes's trip to Japan and his desire to help Umezaki come to terms with his father's abandonment and/or find out what really happened to him serve as the second plot line.
These two settings, one in rural Sussex and one in Japan, and both in 1947, alternate with "The Case of the Glass Armonicist," an uncompleted story about one of Sherlock Holmes's cases from 1902, which Holmes is trying to finish before he forgets the details. The story concerns a young man, Thomas Keller, who has encouraged his wife to learn to play the glass armonica (sometimes called the "glass harmonica") to help her recover from depression after two miscarriages. This unusual instrument involves making tones from glass bowls which are spun on a spindle and "played" by running the fingers along the wet edges of the spinning bowls. Holmes follows the woman after she begins disappearing following Keller's cancellation of her lessons, often donning a disguise to get closer to her. In formal Victorian language, Holmes tells a story reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in style but reflective of a Sherlock Holmes with a softer side.
Cullin has taken great care to be true to the "facts" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has given us about Sherlock Holmes and has created a plausible psychological profile for this man at the end of his life, something which Doyle, with his preoccupation with plot, never did. He has humanized Holmes, giving him the same needs and fears as the rest of us, while providing some background which fits the known facts and offers some possible explanations for his behavior. He does not strip Holmes of his dignity—rather, he makes him a sympathetic character and less a caricature.
Cullin's writing is beautifully suited to this story, filled with vibrant physical details about the natural world and the places in which the action takes place, but he is also unusually sensitive in describing the inner world of an elderly man whose memories now consist of "brief remembrances that soon became vague impressions and were invariably forgotten again…" He also shows Holmes commenting about Watson and betraying good humor in characterizing him. Holmes, for example, regrets the public impression of Watson as "oafish," but admits he did not enjoy Watson's writings, believing them to be "exceedingly overwrought…often superficial…and [containing] authorial embellishments." Holmes's own difficulties in writing "The Glass Armonicist," however, give him new respect for Watson's efforts, and a chance to apologize to Watson, in absentia.
Gracefully incorporating all the story lines, Cullin leads the reader to a conclusion which, while dramatic in many ways, is more memorable for its completeness. Here Holmes concludes his searches, lays his philosophical ponderings to rest, and yearns for whatever peace is possible at the end of a long and often lonely existence. A fascinating continuation of the Sherlock Holmes legend, the novel shows Holmes as he faces events as the end of his life and tries to come to some reconciliation with himself and the world at large.
- Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Slight Trick of the Mind at Nan A. Talese
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Whompyjawed (1999)
- Branches (2000)
- Tideland (2000)
- The Cosmology of Bing (2001)
- From the Place in the Valley Deep in the Forest: Stories (2001)
- UnderSurface (2002)
- A Slight Trick of the Mind (April 2005)
- The Post-War Dream (March 2008)
Movies from books:
- Tideland (2007)
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- Wikipedia page on Mitch Cullen
- LSU analysis of Tideland
- The Film adaption of Tideland
- TrashoTron: Talking Sherlock Holmes
- WashingtonPost.com review of A Slight Trick of the Mind
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About the Author:
Mitch Cullin was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1968.
He lives in California’s San Gabriel Valley, where in addition to writing fiction, he collaborates on various projects with the artist Peter I. Chang.