The Final Solution and the Problem of Expectations

Since the opening paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—considered by most to be the first English detective story—the genre has been about expectations. Poe practically wrote the formula at the start of his short story, outlining the logical capabilities and ratiocination of his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe and later practitioners of the genre quickly established a basic pattern: damsel presents case to shrewd, all-knowing yet uncommunicative detective; detective investigates, but reveals little; detective’s friend narrates from a certain distance, guessing what’s going through the head of the brilliant detective; detective reveals all in a climactic scene that often includes some trickery and more action.

It’s a tried and true formula—one that sells despite its redundancy.

At the same time, the best detective stories are the ones that both play into and off of this pattern. What lifts The Hound of the Baskervilles above Arthur Conan Doyle’s other novels—and indeed, just about any other Sherlock Holmes short story—was its premeditated arrangement of suspects. For once, Holmes wasn’t dragging in a heretofore unknown cab driver and presenting him to the reader, sans explanation, as the murderer. Agatha Christie takes the genre a step further by playing with the narrative in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and by eliminating the detective altogether in And Then There Were None. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler straddled the line between detective fiction and flat-out thriller with their complex cases and steel-headed Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes, respectively. A contemporary novel such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time works because it places the houndstooth hat on the able head of a 15-year old boy with autism.

The point is this: By now, if you’re going to write a detective story, you better plan on changing something up a little. Playing into the same old pattern and emerging with the same results—in other words, resisting the temptation of evolution—is akin to writing a sitcom about friends who pair up into romantic couples. It’s been done before, and probably done better.

That’s why so many detective stories are, if not bad, at least not worthwhile. And that is what is so frustrating when a writer like Michael Chabon sets out to take the next step in detective fiction and settles for The Final Solution—a detective novella that should have been a detective novel. Chabon—the author behind the imaginative The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, the excellent Wonder Boys,* and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—has an ambitious goal in the story: to infuse the detective story with historical context (post-Blitz England) and narrative lyricism. In simple terms, Chabon is trying to write a high-brow detective story. But in its scant 131 pages, complete with more than enough space between the lines, Chabon’s work comes off as incomplete, as tidier than he had planned, as somewhat hollow.

*N.B. The only one of his other works I have read.

The Final Solution centers on an 89-year-old detective who is unnamed but presumed to be Sherlock Holmes (via the setting). Fortunately, there is no octogenarian Watson; instead, Chabon mainly utilizes a limited third-person narration that jumps between characters (but never more than one at the same time, meaning I can stick with “limited” instead of omniscient).* For once, we get into the presumed Holmes’ head and get his thoughts on a London in the midst of war, the art of beekeeping, and that intriguing nine-year-old boy out on Baker Street with a parrot on his shoulder.

*It does go first-person for one chapter, from the perspective of Bruno the parrot. It doesn’t quite work, if you ask me.

Linus Steinman, that nine-year-old child, is mute and a survivor of the Holocaust. It’s perhaps a strategic move by Chabon that we never do get inside Linus’ head; we learn about him from other characters and from his outward emotions—namely his sadness when Bruno, his parrot, disappears following a murder.

Holmes becomes an advisor on the case, but more to rescue Bruno and cheer up Linus than solve the actual murder. The idea seems to be that Linus, even before the mess he gets mixed up in, kindles Holmes’ old appetites and energies. I say this because, in the first chapter, before Linus gets mixed up in said mess, Holmes says, “[H]ere was a puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies.”

The same can’t be said for Chabon. The aspects of Linus’ personality are revealed in that distant manner, and Holmes’ relationship to him reflects that space—the detective guessing at how the boy feels without his characteristic certainty. The tidy surface solution to the mystery—it’s not too deep of one—adds to this sense of missed opportunity. For the real mystery of the boy’s past remains unsolved and indeed barely approached.

Perhaps this was Chabon’s goal: a detective story that solved the easy mystery but couldn’t resolve the harder, subterranean one. But one can’t help but imagine the story a writer of Chabon’s caliber and imagination could have told if he had dived a little deeper, if he had developed the Panicker family (shades of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) beyond brief scenes and descriptions of their relationship troubles, if he had given Holmes more of a chance to investigate and Linus more of a chance to speak, even if inaudibly.

Chabon’s reputation boasts of an ambitious writer that carries out his projects with ingenuity and poignancy. In The Final Solution, he only hints at that potential. Thus, at the story’s conclusion, we can’t help but feel a little unfulfilled. And what good detective story does that?

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on September 6, 2009 at 6:07 PM

    A bit tangential, but I’ve always wondered about the idea of: “It’s been done before, and probably done better.”

    In this case, since Poe was first to define the formula, it presupposes his is better since (at the time) it was not formulaic. But at this point in time, if someone read the Poe story, they would probably be disappointed since it is formulaic (and perhaps to them, the original is the first one “they” read in the genre).

    What if one wants to (and can) follow the formula, but do it better than its ever been done? It seems that if the formula works than perhaps there could be some merit to making the “definitive” version thats actually the best (and not just considered the best because it was first).

    Reply

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