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A Slight Trick of the MindReview - A Slight Trick of the Mind
A Novel
by Mitch Cullin
Highbridge Audio, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Oct 10th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 41)

Mitch Cullin brings us Sherlock Holmes, but now the great detective is 93 years old, living in Sussex in the south of England, the year being 1947. Nearly everyone from his detecting days with whom he had any friendship -- especially John Watson and his brother Moriarty -- has died. He lives with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her fourteen-year-old son Roger, and he has started to teach Roger about his beloved bees. Indeed, he needs Roger's help, because Holmes is now infirm, using two canes to walk, and he is losing his memory. While he was away visiting Kobe, Japan, Roger looked after the bees, and on returning Holmes is impressed by how well the boy has done. The detective has always been a very solitary man, and instructing Roger about the ways of bees provides him with some human connection that has always been lacking in his life.

Indeed, in his twilight years, Holmes has started to bend a few of his own rules and be rather warmer in some of his interactions with others. He spends a great deal of time reflecting on his past, and how isolated he has been. Sadly, just as he is coming to open up a little, his increasing memory loss is starting to cut him off from other people. When he arrives back home with a glass vial containing two Japanese honeybees, he has no idea how they came to be in his pocket. He forgets Roger greeting him when he returned from his trip, and has to be reminded by Mrs. Munro that he just saw the boy. Seeing Holmes like this can make us question what his life was like, and whether despite his great intelligence, he didn't make some terrible mistakes in deciding how to live. So A Slight Trick of the Mind is a deeply reflective work, and is often poignant.

There are two stories within the story. One concerns the past few months, with Holmes' recent trip to Japan to visit Mr. Umezaki, with whom he has been exchanging letters for several years. Of course, it is only a few years since the end of the Second World War, ended by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and these events are very much on the minds of his Japanese hosts. Although Holmes is interested by some of his experience touring the ruins, it is not so clear that he cares very much about it. Often, it seems that the only thing that Holmes really has any concern for is bee-keeping.

The episode that occupies Holmes is a case from many years ago, near the end of his active career as a detective, that he has started to write up in a story called "The Glass Armonicist." Here he describes being hired by a husband worried about the bizarre behavior of his wife who is in mourning for the baby she had because of two miscarriages. The man encouraged his wife to deal with her emotions by taking lessons to play these strange glass instruments that make a haunting sound, and after initial reluctance, she seemed to have become obsessed with the activity. With the perspective of several decades, Holmes looks back with his brief encounter with Mrs. Keller with deep regret. It is a case that haunts him still, although the reader may wonder why the depressed woman had such a hold over him.

For the most part, Cullin's writing creates a believable figure in the nonagenarian Holmes. The man is not as arrogant or sure of himself as Conan Doyle's character, but the changes are natural given the effects of time. Furthermore, the old stories of Holmes were supposed to be written by Dr. Watson, while this novel is written in an impersonal third-person voice, along with samples of Holmes' own writing, so perspective of the narrator is quite different from that of the old detective stories. The time being described can shift quickly from moment to moment, switching from the present to a few weeks ago to the distant past, with a bewildering speed, apparently suggesting the increasing confusion in Holmes' mind.

It is never quite clear why Cullin goes to the lengths of putting Holmes in Japan, but it does have the advantage of taking Holmes away from his accustomed environment, which keeps the novel fresh and interesting. While on his Sussex farm, Holmes can largely ignore the changes going on in the world outside, he has to confront the changing society much more directly when he goes traveling. This trip also adds some energy to the plot, so we do not have to read only about Holmes sitting around reminiscing. Nevertheless, this part of the story does not entirely work, because the detective remains so much within his own world even when he is in such a different culture.

A Slight Trick of the Mind is read wonderfully by Simon Jones in the unabridged audiobook, and he strikes just the right balance between the arrogance and incisiveness of the old Sherlock Holmes and the pathos of the old frail man at the end of his life. The book tends to work more as a curiosity building on the fame of an iconic detective rather than an independent work of literature, but it is enjoyable and pleasantly sad.

 

 

2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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