A Slight Trick of the Mind. Mitch Cullin. New York: Random House, 2005. 272 pp.
Cullin’s novel opens on a farmhouse in Sussex, England, in 1947. Sherlock Holmes, aged 93, lives as a beekeeper with his widowed housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her teenage son Roger. He has just returned from a visit to post-war Japan in order to examine and taste prickly ash.
Through narration, flashbacks, and manuscripts, Cullin gives Sherlock Holmes three mysteries. Each one has a different setting and narrator. First is the unfinished manuscript written by an aging Holmes, which Roger secretly reads in the old man’s study. In 1902 London, Mr. Thomas Keller asks Holmes to help him find his wife Ann, who regularly disappears and reappears. Having miscarried two children, she had learned to play the glass harmonica at her husband’s insistence and expense to avoid depression. However, once Thomas learned that Ann was using this instrument to try to speak with her dead children, he cut off her music lessons. Thomas then discovered that Ann was secretly going to her instructor, presumably to resume her lessons. So he hires Holmes to find his wife.
The second mystery is more recent. Using a shared interest in the health benefits of royal jelly and prickly ash, Mr. Umezaki invites Sherlock Holmes to post-war Japan. While visiting Hiroshima, Kobe, Shimonoseki, and Tokyo, Holmes learns that Umezaki’s father Matsuda, a diplomat, had disappeared from London in March 1903 after mentioning a visit to Holmes in a final note to his wife. This note had arrived with an edition of A Study in Scarlet. Umezaki wants answers to the disappearance of his father and asks Holmes to supply them.
The final mystery is the most tragic and takes place after Sherlock Holmes has returned from Japan. One day he discovers Roger, lying dead a few yards from his apiary. His face and neck are swollen and covered in stings. Grieved, Holmes contacts the police and gives them the task of telling Mrs. Munro that her son has died. The next day, the bereaved mother tries to destroy the apiary but Holmes prevents her. No one asks him how Roger died, only why.
What is both surprising and disturbing in these mysteries is that Sherlock Holmes holds the keys to their answers but doesn’t discover this fact until it’s too late. First, he learns that instead of secretly practicing the glass harmonica, Ann Keller reads borrowed books under her former instructor’s window and in a botanical garden. In a scene reminiscent of “The Saint” (1998), Holmes visits Ann in disguise and discusses Russian literature with her, but he doesn’t tell her his true name or purpose. Nor does he learn the reason for her aimless reading. Too late does Holmes discover his mistake. After Ann commits suicide, he visits Thomas and “absolve[s] his wife of any wrongdoing” (248). However, Holmes doesn’t tell the bereaved husband about his secret meeting with Ann. Nor can he explain why she died.
Second, Sherlock Holmes remembers that a possible key to the disappearance of Mr. Umezaki’s father is in one of Dr. Watson’s journals. Because it contained sensitive information about cases involving foreign dignitaries, royal family members, and MPs, Holmes had burned the journal years before meeting Umezaki. Unable to remember a meeting with Matsuda, Holmes concocts a story about his assisting the British Empire in New Zealand’s annexation of the Cook Islands and his final disappearance there. While not the truth, this story gives Umezaki some peace of mind. The mystery he asks Holmes to solve is never really cleared up, but it ends the happiest.
Finally, Sherlock Holmes discovers, too late, that he might have prevented Roger’s death. Only when a stray wasp lands on his shoulder does he learn the truth that Roger died from an attack of wasps while trying to destroy their nest. Although he taught Roger much about the dangers of wasps, Holmes had failed “to teach him a most vital fact: that pouring water into a wasps’ nest only hastened the insects’ wrath; it was … like using petrol to quell a fire” (188). Holmes destroys the nest himself using petrol, but the damage has been done. As with Thomas Keller, Holmes is unable to explain Roger’s death or quell his and Mrs. Munro’s grief.
Death and father-son themes enrich the story. Sherlock Holmes becomes a substitute father to Umezaki and Roger, whose own father died during World War II. Holmes’ destruction of the wasps’ nest also resembles the sudden destruction of imperial Japan and a once-blossoming Hiroshima through the atom bomb: “A single match would complete his task, the flame cutting like a fuse across the ground, igniting the gaping mouth with a hiss, producing a slight eruption, which momentarily belched fire past the earthen lips … eliminating in an instant the queen and the fertile eggs and the throng of workers trapped inside their colony: a vast and intricate empire encased by the yellowish paper of the nest, gone in a flash, like young Roger” (189-90). Ironically, Roger had felt that his father’s sacrifice was noble because of the bombs on Japan, yet Holmes cannot explain the senselessness of the boy’s death.
I read a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and all his books on Sherlock Holmes before picking up Cullin’s novel. I don’t know Holmes as well as others, but on three points I’m certain. First, the asexual detective is not interested in women. Holmes notes their physical features only in relation to his cases; doing so doesn’t make him less than human either. Irene Adler (“A Scandal in Bohemia”) is no exception. Holmes admires her intellectual prowess in evasion rather than her beauty. He’s both professional and kind with his clients, working each case for its own sake in order to exercise his mental agility. Holmes never forgets his duty, neither the case nor the client. That Cullin’s Holmes should neglect his professional duty to the Kellers and become infatuated with Ann baffles me. And that such a secret affair of the heart should make Holmes suddenly ‘human’ in his old age is ridiculous. When compared with Conan Doyle’s portrait, that of Cullin is a gross mismatch.
Second, I don’t know Sherlock Holmes’ religion, but I’m certain he’s not an atheist. The reason is obvious. Generally ignorant of other religions, Conan Doyle was reared a Roman Catholic but later became an agnostic and then a spiritualist. So, Holmes likes to quote the Bible; “possessing our souls in patience” (Luke 21:19) is a favorite allusion. He often compares his fight against Professor Moriarty to the eternal struggle between good and evil. Finally, whenever a client attributes the cause of a crime to the supernatural, Holmes either dismisses the idea (but not the possibility) or says that such a cause is beyond his talent. He never dismisses the supernatural altogether.
So why does Cullin portray Holmes as an atheist? Telling Mrs. Munro to “remove God from the equation,” he ridicules her Christian conception of God “as a figment of imagination” (86-87). Holmes then rejoices that her pragmatic son Roger holds “very secular concerns” and advises him to ignore “the dogmas of archaic doctrines” (87). The canonical Holmes would never have said such things. So is Cullin trying to fashion Holmes in his own image?
Finally, Sherlock Homes isn’t a brain without a heart. The most celebrated example appears in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs.” Afraid that a pursued criminal has fatally shot Watson, Holmes threatens to kill him. Watson tells his readers, “It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.” And in “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes berates himself for letting a client in danger be murdered after leaving his rooms in Baker Street. Readers rarely glimpse Holmes’ true feelings for people close to him, but he is not without emotion or compassion.
Cullin’s Holmes is a very different man. Through “a slight trick of the mind,” he creates a walled space in his garden to remember the late Mrs. Hudson, John Watson, and his brother Mycroft. Outside this space, Holmes never dwells on his grief. Although this activity is psychologically and emotionally healthy, Cullin uses it as an example of the man’s inhumanity. Holmes becomes “human” only when he grieves for Roger in front of Mrs. Munro, who calls his words and academic interests “meaningless” (235). She then asks him, “What have you ever known about loving someone?” (235) Watson and Mycroft would never have asked Holmes this question. The idea that a man is inhuman because he compartmentalizes his life or refuses to grieve in public is ridiculous. Cullin should have consulted child psychologists and grief counselors before arriving at such a conclusion.
The ordinary man in Cullin’s novel bears no resemblance to the canonical Sherlock Holmes. If he had been named anyone else, A Slight Trick of the Mind would have been a success. Instead, it’s an unworthy successor to the canon.
See-Saw Films (The King’s Speech, Oranges and Sunshine) and Archer Gray Productions (The American) are adapting Cullin’s novel into a feature film Mr. Holmes (IMDb). Jeffrey Hatcher (Coco Chanel, The Duchess) and Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) penned the screenplay, with Condon also directing. He received Academy Award nominations for his screenplays of Chicago and Gods and Monsters.
Sir Ian McKellen has been cast as Sherlock Holmes. He told Empire last October that although he’s “never had ambitions to play” the English detective, “this is Sherlock in a very particular place.” McKellen also says he’ll be dressed as a beekeeper, but he won’t “go anywhere near any bees.” Laura Linney will play Mrs. Munro. She told Empire in May that she “was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes” as a child: “I loved the atmosphere of the stories. I loved the intrigue, his personality.”
Both McKellen and Linney have previously worked with Condon, who told Empire that McKellen’s Sherlock is like “one icon playing another.” He also said he’s “looking forward to the combined talents and smarts” of these two actors.
Production is taking place this month in the UK. The film will be released in theaters next year.