Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Slight Trick of the Mind

Further to Aged Holmes stories, I just finished Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, a novel imagining Sherlock Holmes at 93, long retired to the Sussex Downs and his bee-keeping. Although it dates from 2005, I only checked it out recently after news reports mentioned it as source for the forthcoming film Mr. Holmes.


The framing story concerns the aged Holmes, who lives with his housekeeper Mrs Munro and her young son Roger. Failing in memory, he increasingly muses about the past, and is trying to write up his final case, The Glass Armonicist. This, the second thread in the book, concerns Holmes helping a husband whose wife seems to have come under the malign influence of a music teacher giving her tuition on the glass harmonica. Holmes has become interested in purported longevity remedies including royal jelly and a Japanese plant called prickly ash. This brings him into correspondence with a fellow enthusiast, Mr Umezaki in Kobe, and the book's third thread concerns his recent trip to Japan to stay with the Umezaki brothers and search out the prickly ash, a visit that takes him to Hiroshima.

It's a sympathetic portrayal of a Holmes who has mellowed into old age into a thoughtful man who is well aware of his own deficiences in relating to people, and is most happy sharing facts and experiencing his surroundings. Cullin has done his research; the book slots beautifully into both the original Conan Doyle stories and the real-world history of Holmesiana. Holmes apologises for dramatists' portrayal of the late Dr Watson as an "oafish blundering fool", and regularly runs into people who are surprised that he looks nothing like the Sidney Paget illustrations and, for instance, smokes Jamaican cigars, not a calabash pipe. The style is very literary, but Holmes explains within the novel that it's his own style, neither Watson's nor the style he used, in imitation of Watson, for The Adventure of the Lion's Mane and The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier. (the two canon stories supposed to have been written by Holmes).

Huber, 1841 Thomas Tegg edition
Cullin skilfully interweaves the story threads and the book's themes: bees are pertinent in all three narratives, all of which feature motifs of storytelling, deception, self-deception, and things not being what they seem. For instance, Mr Umezaki's interest in prickly ash turns out to be a cover story for seeking Holmes's help to find the fate of his father. This theme also applies to Holmes's own life, where his many theories on a traumatic case don't feature the possible effect of his own personal involvement with it.

It's a gently-told but powerful and tragic book, and I highly recommend it.

A Slight Trick of the Mind contains several nice illustrations from the 1821 edition of Fran├žois Huber's New Observations on the Natural History Of Bees, which is worth a glance (see the 1806 edition).

Update, 8th May 2015
Small world! Language Log has a current post by Professor Victor Mair (LL's resident expert on Chinese language and literature) with extensive discussion of prickly ash terminology and cuisine. I've mentioned the Cullin connection there, and added a new post here at JSBlog on the phenomenon of ingredients such as Sichuan pepper, that tickle the nerve receptors in ways more subtle than just causing pain. See Prickly ash revisited.

Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) fruits
Didier Descouens - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

- Ray

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