A Slight Trick of the Mind

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Overview

Mitch Cullin's engrossing A Slight Trick of the Mind is an original portrait of literature's most beloved detective, Sherlock Holmes, in the twilight of his illustrious life.

Holmes—"a genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of heroic passion"—is famous for his powers of deduction. His world is made up of hard evidence and uncontestable facts, his observations and conclusions unsullied by personal feelings, until novelist Cullin goes behind the cold, ...

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Overview

Mitch Cullin's engrossing A Slight Trick of the Mind is an original portrait of literature's most beloved detective, Sherlock Holmes, in the twilight of his illustrious life.

Holmes—"a genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of heroic passion"—is famous for his powers of deduction. His world is made up of hard evidence and uncontestable facts, his observations and conclusions unsullied by personal feelings, until novelist Cullin goes behind the cold, unsentimental surface to reveal for the first time the inner world of an obsessively private man.

It is 1947, and the long-retired Holmes, now 93, lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse, where his memories and intellect begin to go adrift. He lives with a housekeeper and her young son, Roger, whose patient, respectful demeanor stirs paternal affection in Holmes. Holmes has settled into the routine of tending his apiary, writing in journals, and grappling with the diminishing powers of his razor-sharp mind, when Roger comes upon a case hitherto unknown. It is that of a Mrs. Keller, the long-ago object of Holmes's deep—and never acknowledged—infatuation.

As Mitch Cullin weaves together Holmes's hidden past, his poignant struggle to retain mental acuity, and his unlikely relationship with Roger, Holmes is transformed from the machine-like, mythic figure into an ordinary man, confronting and acquiescing to emotions he has resisted his entire life. This subtle and wise work is more than just a reimagining of a classic character. It is a profound meditation on faultiness of memory and how, as we grow older, the way we see the world is inevitably altered.

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Editorial Reviews

Dan Chiasson
As the conclusion of this beautiful novel makes plain, lives aren't like cases or, for that matter, like narratives. They are never solved or resolved: they just one day come to an end.
— The New York Times
Carolyn See
This is a lovely, tenderhearted book, full of reserve, good manners, elegance of feeling. It's what a novel should be. You don't read it to be "improved" but for the plain joy of seeing what the language can do in the hands of an affectionate, very accomplished writer.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The Sherlock Holmes pastiche is a time-honored tradition, though most attempts are interesting primarily to Sherlockians who pick them apart, searching for mistakes. But Cullin (Branches; Tideland; etc.) has produced an ambitious, beautifully written novel that examines an enfeebled but still intellectually curious Holmes as he copes with the indignities of old age. It's just after the end of WWII: Holmes's brilliant brother Mycroft is dead, as is Watson ("You know, I never did call him Watson-he was John, simply John"). Now 93, the great detective has been retired for decades; he spends his days immersed in his lifelong passion, beekeeping, and in writing various articles and letters. One of his projects is an account of a case concerning a mysterious young woman who played the glass armonica. Holmes will complete the manuscript by the book's end, and the fascinating result will explain something of his peculiar character. Cullin gives Holmes a companion in his housekeeper's young son, Roger; their close relationship is a great solace to the prickly and famously solitary old man. It is this elucidation of Holmes's "true" character that is the purpose of Cullin's story. This look at Holmes near his natural death is a delight and a deeply satisfying read-more so than Michael Chabon's recent The Final Solution, which also features a nonagenarian Holmes. (Apr. 26) Forecast: Cullin's work is hard to pigeonhole-Texas noir (Tideland; Branches), coming-of-age novel (Whompyjawed), academic satire (The Cosmology of Bing)-but his talent is undeniable. This sophisticated spin on Doyle's perennially popular detective could take him up a notch recognition-wise. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this refreshingly inventive novel, Cullin (Tideland) explores what Sherlock Holmes might have been like at age 93. It is 1947, and the great detective is suffering from short-term memory loss; his mind wanders from his current retirement in Sussex to a case he worked on many years earlier in which Thomas Keller had accused music teacher Madame Schirmer of having an evil influence on his wife, Ann. In investigating, Holmes manufactured a brief encounter with Ann and found himself captivated by her unusual beauty. Back in the present day, Holmes has just returned from a trip to occupied Japan, and it turns out that his correspondent, Mr. Umezaki, is really more interested in the disappearance of his father 50 years earlier than in tracking down the elusive prickly ash plant. Does Holmes remember anything that could help? And does that disappearance connect somehow with Mrs. Keller's case? Cullin skillfully blends three distinct story lines and time periods while offering a fresh perspective on the Holmes legend. Given the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes, this is a solid choice for most public libraries.-Laurel Bliss, Princeton Univ. Lib., NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This wistful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in old age is a real departure from Cullin's previous up-and-down fiction (Undersurface, 2002, etc.). We meet the Great Detective in 1947, aged 93, retired to his Sussex farm, physically and mentally impaired, though sustained by his many memories; the "beeyard" whose cultivation expresses his lifelong "desire to be a part of the original, natural order," and the restorative effects of royal jelly and other beneficent natural substances. Cullin's engaging tale has three deftly interwoven strands: Holmes's extended postwar visit to Japan, which includes a tour of destroyed Hiroshima and an investigation into his host Mr. Umeyaki's family history; an avuncular friendship with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro's son Roger, his devoted apprentice in the art of beekeeping; and the remembered case of "The Glass Armonica," involving a troubled marriage, alleged communion with both the dead and the unborn, and a woman Holmes could not save-for whose fate he may in fact bear a terrible responsibility. There are missteps: Though there's no hint of sexual misconduct, Holmes's habit of nude bathing with handsome young Roger does raise the eyebrow; and Cullin's generally very successful appropriation of Conan Doyle's plummy Victorian prose accommodates occasional anachronisms and barbarisms (surely Holmes would never have misused "like" for "as," as he does herein). But the meat of the story is Cullin's searching characterization of this ultimate rationalist perturbed and disoriented by decades of political, social and climatic change; unmanned by his lingering survival into a world grown so complex he can no longer do what he had hitherto done to perfection:observed and made sense of things. This extra layer of realistic complexity makes Cullin's immensely moving seventh outing one of the best of all the Holmes pastiches. A talented writer's bold step forward. Let's hope Cullin isn't finished with Sherlock Holmes.
From the Publisher
“A beautiful novel about Sherlock Holmes. . . . It’s what a novel should be.” —The Washington Post

“Wonderfully written and heartbreaking.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A wise and touching examination of the human condition.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Quite extraordinary. . . . Our hero—our eternal hero—has never been more heroic, or more human.” —The Village Voice

“Beautiful. . . . Cullin is an unusually sophisticated theorist of human nature.” —The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385513289
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/19/2005
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author


Originally from Wiltshire, England, award-winning narrator SIMON JONES is perhaps most often recognized as ‘Arthur Dent’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (both radio and TV versions) or as ‘Bridey’ in the classic TV mini-series “Brideshead Revisited”.

He has been seen in such films as Privates in Parade, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Miracle on 34th Street (remake), and Devil’s Own; most recently on TV as a judge in OZ and as ‘C.S. Lewis’ in PBS’s A Question of God; and regularly on stage, including 10 major roles on Broadway. In 2004 his audio book narrations won him AudioFile magazine's "Golden Voice" award, and Publisher’s Weekly "Narrator of the Year."

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Upon arriving from his travels abroad, he entered his stone-built farmhouse on a summer’s afternoon, leaving the luggage by the front door for his housekeeper to manage. He then retreated into the library, where he sat quietly, glad to be surrounded by his books and the familiarity of home. For almost two months, he had been away, traveling by military train across India, by Royal Navy ship to Australia, and then finally setting foot on the occupied shores of postwar Japan. Going and returning, the same interminable routes had been taken–usually in the company of rowdy enlisted men, few of whom acknowledged the elderly gentleman dining or sitting beside them (that slow-walking geriatric, searching his pockets for a match he’d never find, chewing relentlessly on an unlit Jamaican cigar). Only on the rare occasions when an informed officer might announce his identity would the ruddy faces gaze with amazement, assessing him in that moment: For while he used two canes, his body remained unbowed, and the passing of years hadn’t dimmed his keen gray eyes; his snow-white hair, thick and long, like his beard, was combed straight back in the English fashion.

“Is that true? Are you really him?”

“I am afraid I still hold that distinction.”

“You are Sherlock Holmes? No, I don’t believe it.”

“That is quite all right. I scarcely believe it myself.”

But at last the journey was completed, though he found it difficult to summon the specifics of his days abroad. Instead, the whole vacation–while filling him like a satisfying meal–felt unfathomable in hindsight, punctuated here and there by brief remembrances that soon became vague impressions and were invariably forgotten again. Even so, he had the immutable rooms of his farmhouse, the rituals of his orderly country life, the reliability of his apiary–these things required no vast, let alone meager, amount of recall; they had simply become ingrained during his decades of isolation. Then there were the bees he tended: The world continued to change, as did he, but they persisted nonetheless. And after his eyes closed and his breaths resonated, it would be a bee that welcomed him home–a worker manifesting in his thoughts, finding him elsewhere, settling on his throat and stinging him.

Of course, when stung by a bee on the throat, he knew it was best to drink salt and water to prevent serious consequences. Naturally, the stinger should be pulled from the skin beforehand, preferably seconds after the poison’s instantaneous release. In his forty-four years of beekeeping on the southern slope of the Sussex Downs–living between Seaford and Eastbourne, the closest village being the tiny Cuckmere Haven–he had received exactly 7,816 stings from worker bees (almost always on the hands or face, occasionally on the earlobes or the neck or the throat: the cause and subsequent effects of every single prick dutifully contemplated, and later recorded into one of the many notebook journals he kept in his attic study). These mildly painful experiences, over time, had led him to a variety of remedies, each depending on which parts of his body had been stung and the ultimate depth to which the stinger had gone: salt with cold water, soft soap mixed with salt, then half of a raw onion applied to the irritation; when in extreme discomfort, wet mud or clay sometimes did the trick, as long as it was reapplied hourly, until the swelling was no longer apparent; however, to cure the smart, and also prevent inflammation, dampened tobacco rubbed immediately into the skin seemed the most effective solution.

Yet now–while sitting inside the library and napping in his armchair beside the empty fireplace–he was panicked within his dreaming, unable to recall what needed to be done for this sudden sting upon his Adam’s apple. He witnessed himself there, in his dream, standing upright among a stretching field of marigolds and clasping his neck with slender, arthritic fingers. Already the swelling had begun, bulging beneath his hands like a pronounced vein. A paralysis of fear overtook him, and he became stock-still as the swelling grew outward and inward (his fingers parted by the ballooning protuberance, his throat closing in on itself).

And there, too, in that field of marigolds, he saw himself contrasting amid the red and golden yellow beneath him. Naked, with his pale flesh exposed above the flowers, he resembled a brittle skeleton covered by a thin veneer of rice paper. Gone were the vestments of his retirement–the woolens, the tweeds, the reliable clothing he had worn daily since before the Great War, throughout the second Great War, and into his ninety-third year. His flowing hair had been shorn to the scalp, and his beard was reduced to a stubble on his jutting chin and sunken cheeks. The canes that aided his ambling–the very canes placed across his lap inside the library–had vanished as well within his dreaming. But he remained standing, even as his constricting throat blocked passage and his breathing became impossible. Only his lips moved, stammering noiselessly for air. Everything else–his body, the blossoming flowers, the clouds up high–offered no perceptible movement, all of it made static save those quivering lips and a solitary worker bee roaming its busy black legs about a creased forehead.

Chapter 2

Holmes gasped, waking. His eyelids lifted, and he glanced around the library while clearing his throat. Then he inhaled deeply, noting the slant of waning sunlight coming from a west-facing window: the resulting glow and shadow cast across the polished slats of the floor, creeping like clock hands, just enough to touch the hem of the Persian rug underneath his feet, told him it was precisely 5:18 in the afternoon.

“Have you stirred?” asked Mrs. Munro, his young housekeeper, who stood nearby, her back to him.

“Quite so,” he replied, his stare fixing on her slight form–the long hair pushed into a tight bun, the curling dark brown wisps hanging over her slender neck, the straps of her tan apron tied at her rear. From a wicker basket placed on the library table, she took out bundles of correspondence (letters bearing foreign postmarks, small packages, large envelopes), and, as instructed to do once a week, she began sorting them into appropriate stacks based on size.

“You was doing it in your nap, sir. That choking sound–you was doing it, same as before you went. Should I bring water?”

“I don’t believe it is required at present,” he said, absently clutching both canes.

“Suit yourself, then.”

She continued sorting–the letters to the left, the packages in the middle, the larger envelopes on the right. During his absence, the normally sparse table had filled with precarious stacks of communication. He knew there would certainly be gifts, odd items sent from afar. There would be requests for magazine or radio interviews, and there would be pleas for help (a lost pet, a stolen wedding ring, a missing child, an array of other hopeless trifles best left unanswered). Then there were the yet-to-be-published manuscripts: misleading and lurid fictions based on his past exploits, lofty explorations in criminology, galleys of mystery anthologies–along with flattering letters asking for an endorsement, a positive comment for a future dust jacket, or, possibly, an introduction to a text. Rarely did he respond to any of it, and never did he indulge journalists, writers, or publicity seekers.

Still, he usually perused every letter sent, examined the contents of every package delivered. That one day a week–regardless of a season’s warmth or chill–he worked at the table while the fireplace blazed, tearing open envelopes, scanning the subject matter before crumpling the paper and throwing it into the flames. The gifts, however, were put aside, set carefully into the wicker basket for Mrs. Munro to give to those who organized charitable works in the town. But if a missive addressed a specific interest, if it avoided servile praise and smartly addressed a mutual fascination with what concerned him most–the undertakings of producing a queen from a worker bee’s egg, the health benefits of royal jelly, perhaps a new insight regarding the cultivation of ethnic culinary herbs like prickly ash (nature’s far-flung oddities, which, as he believed royal jelly did, could stem the needless atrophy that often beset an elderly body and mind)–then the letter stood a fair chance of being spared incineration; it might find its way into his coat pocket instead, remaining there until he found himself at his attic study desk, his fingers finally retrieving the letter for further consideration. Sometimes these lucky letters beckoned him elsewhere: an herb garden beside a ruined abbey near Worthing, where a strange hybrid of burdock and red dock thrived; a bee farm outside of Dublin, bestowed by chance with a slightly acidic, though not unpalatable, batch of honey as a result of moisture covering the combs one particularly warm season; most recently, Shimonoseki, a Japanese town that offered specialty cuisine made from prickly ash, which, along with a diet of miso paste and fermented soybeans, seemed to afford the locals sustained longevity (the need for documentation and firsthand knowledge of such rare, possibly life-extending nourishment being the chief pursuit of his solitary years).

“You’ll live with this mess for an age,” said Mrs. Munro, nodding at the mail stacks. After lowering the empty wicker basket to the floor, she turned to him, saying, “There’s more, too, you know, out in the front hall closet–them boxes was cluttering up everything.”

“Very well, Mrs. Munro,” he said sharply, hoping to thwart any elaboration on her part.

“Should I bring the others in? Or should I wait for this bunch to be finished?”

“You can wait.”

He glanced at the doorway, indicating with his eyes that he wished for her withdrawal. But she ignored his stare, pausing instead to smooth her apron before continuing: “There’s an awful lot–in that hall closet, you know–I can’t tell you how much.”

“So I have gathered. I think for the moment I will focus on what is here.”

“I’d say you’ve got your hands full, sir. If you’re needing help–”

“I can take care of it–thank you.”

Intently this time, he gazed at the doorway, inclining his head in its direction.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, tentatively stepping onto the Persian rug and into the sunlight.

A scowl halted her approach, softening a bit as he sighed. “Not in the slightest” was his answer.

“Will you be eating this evening?”

“It is inevitable, I suppose.” He briefly envisioned her laboring recklessly in the kitchen, spilling offal on the countertops, or dropping bread crumbs and perfectly good slices of Stilton to the floor. “Are you intent on concocting your unsavory toad-in-the-hole?”

“You told me you didn’t like that,” she said, sounding surprised.

“I don’t, Mrs. Munro, I truly don’t–at least not your interpretation of it. Your shepherd’s pie, on the other hand, is a rare thing.”

Her expression brightened, even as she knitted her brow in contemplation. “Well, let’s see, I got leftover beef from the Sunday roast. I could use that–except I know how you prefer the lamb.”

“Leftover beef is acceptable.”

“Shepherd’s pie it is, then,” she said, her voice taking on a sudden urgency. “And so you’ll know, I’ve got your bags unpacked. Didn’t know what to do with that funny knife you brought, so it’s by your pillow. Mind you don’t cut yourself.” He sighed with greater effect, shutting his eyes completely, removing her from his sight altogether: “It is called a kusun-gobu, my dear, and I appreciate your concern–wouldn’t want to be stilettoed in my own bed.”

“Who would?”

His right hand fumbled into a coat pocket, his fingers feeling for the remainder of a half-consumed Jamaican. But, to his dismay, he had somehow misplaced the cigar (perhaps lost as he disembarked from the train earlier, as he stooped to retrieve a cane that had slipped from his grasp–possibly the Jamaican had escaped his pocket then, falling to the platform, only to get flattened underfoot). “Maybe,” he mumbled, “or maybe–”

He searched another pocket, listening while Mrs. Munro’s shoes went from the rug and crossed the slats and moved onward through the doorway (seven steps, enough to take her from the library). His fingers curled around a cylindrical tube (nearly the same length and circumference of the halved Jamaican, although by its weight and firmness, he readily discerned it wasn’t the cigar). And when lifting his eyelids, he beheld a clear glass vial sitting upright on his open palm; and peering closer, the sunlight glinting off the metal cap, he studied the two dead honeybees sealed within–one mingling upon the other, their legs intertwined, as if both had succumbed during an intimate embrace.

“Mrs. Munro–”

“Yes?” she replied, about-facing in the corridor and coming back with haste. “What is it?”

“Where is Roger?” he asked, returning the vial to his pocket.

She entered the library, covering the seven steps that had marked her departure. “Beg your pardon?”

“Your boy–Roger–where is he? I haven’t seen him about yet.”

“But, sir, he carried your bags inside for you, don’t you remember? Then you told him to go wait for you at them hives. You said you wanted him there for an inspection.”

A confused look spread across his pale, bearded face, and that puzzlement that occupied the moments when he sensed the failing of his own memory also threw its shadow over him (what else was forgotten, what else filtered away like sand seeping between clenched fists, and what exactly was known for sure anymore?), yet he attempted to push his worries aside by inducing a reasonable explanation for what confounded him from time to time.

“Of course, that is right. It was a tiring trip, you see. I haven’t slept much. Has he waited long?”

“A good while–didn’t take his tea–can’t imagine he minds a bit, though. Since you went, he’s cared more for them bees than his own mother, I can tell you.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, sadly it is.”

“Well, then,” he said, situating the canes, “I suppose I won’t keep the boy waiting any longer.”

Easing from the armchair, the canes bringing him to his feet, he proceeded for the doorway, wordlessly counting each step–one, two, three–while ignoring Mrs. Munro uttering behind him, “Want meat your side, sir? You got it all right, do you?” Four, five, six. He wouldn’t conceive of her frowning as he trudged forward, or foresee her spotting his Jamaican seconds after he exited the room (her bending before the armchair, pinching the foul-smelling cigar from the seat cushion, and depositing it in the fireplace). Seven, eight, nine, ten–eleven steps brought him into the corridor: four steps more than it took Mrs. Munro, and two steps more than his average.

Naturally, he concluded when catching his breath at the front door, a degree of sluggishness on his part wasn’t unexpected; he had ventured halfway around the world and back, forgoing his usual morning meal of royal jelly spread upon fried bread–the royal jelly, rich in vitamins of the B-complex and containing substantial amounts of sugars, proteins, and certain organic acids, was essential to maintaining his well-being and stamina; without its nourishment, he felt positive, his body had suffered somewhat, as had his retention.

But once outside, his mind was invigorated by the land awash in late-afternoon light. The flora posed no quandary, nor did the shadows hint at the voids where fragments of his memory should reside. Everything there was as it had been for decades–and so, too, was he: strolling effortlessly down the garden pathway, past the wild daffodils and the herb beds, past the deep purple buddleias and the giant thistles curling upward, inhaling all the while; a light breeze rustled the surrounding pines, and he savored the crunching sounds produced on the gravel from his shoes and canes. If he glanced back over his shoulder just now, he knew the farmhouse would be obscured behind four large pines–the front doorway and casements bedecked with climbing roses, the molded hoods above the windows, the exposed brick mullions of the outer walls; most of it barely visible among that dense crisscrossing of branches and pine needles. Ahead, where the path ended, stretched an undivided pasture enriched with a profusion of azaleas, laurel, and rhododendrons, beyond which loomed a cluster of freestanding oaks. And beneath the oaks–arranged on a straight-row plan, two hives to a group–existed his apiary.

Presently, he found himself pacing the beeyard as young Roger–eager to impress him with how well the bees had been tended in his absence, roving now from hive to hive without a veil and with sleeves rolled high–explained that after the swarm had been settled in early April, only a few days prior to Holmes’s leaving for Japan, they had since fully drawn out the foundation wax within the frames, built honeycombs, and filled each hexagonal cell. In fact, to his delight, the boy had already reduced the number of frames to nine per hive, thereby allowing plenty of space for the bees to thrive.

“Excellent,” Holmes said. “You have summered these creatures admirably, Roger. I am very pleased by your diligence here.” Then, rewarding the boy, he removed the vial from his pocket, presenting it between a crooked finger and a thumb. “This was meant for you,” he said, watching as Roger accepted the container and gazed at its contents with mild wonder. “Apis cerana japonica–or perhaps we will simply call them Japanese honeybees. How’s that?”

“Thank you, sir.”

The boy gave him a smile, and, gazing into Roger’s perfect blue eyes, lightly patting the boy’s mess of blond hair, Holmes smiled in turn. Afterward, they faced the hives together, saying nothing for a while. Silence like this, in the beeyard, never failed to please him wholly; from the way Roger stood easily beside him, he believed the boy shared an equal satisfaction. And while he rarely enjoyed the company of children, it was difficult avoiding the paternal stirrings he harbored for Mrs. Munro’s son (how, he had often pondered, could that meandering woman have borne such a promising offspring?).

But even at his advanced age, he found it impossible to express his true affections, especially toward a fourteen-year-old whose father had been among the British army casualties in the Balkans and whose presence, he suspected, Roger sorely missed. In any case, it was always wise to maintain emotional self-restraint when engaging housekeepers and their kin–it was, no doubt, enough just to stand with the boy as their mutual stillness hopefully spoke volumes, as their eyes surveyed the hives and studied the swaying oak branches and contemplated the subtle shifting of the afternoon into the evening.

Soon, Mrs. Munro called from the garden pathway, beckoning for Roger’s assistance in the kitchen. Then, reluctantly, he and the boy headed across the pasture, doing so at their leisure, stopping to observe a blue butterfly fluttering around the fragrant azaleas. Moments before dusk’s descent, they entered the garden, the boy’s hand gently gripping his elbow–that same hand guiding him onward through the farmhouse door, staying upon him until he had safely mounted the stairs and gone into his attic study (navigating the stairs being hardly a difficult undertaking, though he felt grateful whenever Roger steadied him like a human crutch).

“Should I fetch you when supper’s ready?”

“Please, if you would.”

“Yes, sir.”

So at his desk he sat, waiting for the boy to aid him again, to help him down the stairs. For a while, he busied himself, examining notes he had written prior to his trip, cryptic messages scrawled on torn bits of paper–levulose predominates, more soluble than dextrose–the meanings of which eluded him. He glanced around, realizing Mrs. Munro had taken liberties in his absence. The books he had scattered about the floor were now stacked, the floor swept, but–as he had expressly instructed–not a thing had been dusted. Becoming increasingly restless for tobacco, he shifted notebooks and opened drawers, hoping to find a Jamaican or at least a cigarette. After the hunt proved futile, he resigned himself with favored correspondence, reaching for one of the many letters sent by Mr. Tamiki Umezaki weeks before he had embarked on his trip abroad: Dear Sir, I’m extremely gratified that my invitation was received with serious interest, and that you have decided to be my guest here in Kobe. Needless to say, I look forward to showing you the many temple gardens in this region of Japan, as well as–

This, too, proved elusive: No sooner had he begun reading than his eyelids closed and his chin gradually sagged toward his chest. Then sleeping, he wouldn’t feel the letter slide through his fingers, or hear the faint choking emanating from his throat. And upon waking, he wouldn’t recall the field of marigolds where he had stood, nor would he remember the dream which had placed him there again. Instead, startled to find Roger suddenly leaning over him, he would clear his throat and stare at the boy’s vexed face and rasp with uncertainty, “Was I asleep?”

The boy nodded.

“I see–I see–”

“Your supper will be served soon.”

“Yes, my supper will be served soon,” he muttered, readying his canes.

As before, Roger gingerly assisted Holmes, helping him from the chair, sticking close to him when they exited the study; the boy traveled with him along the corridor, then down the stairs, then into the dining room, where, at last slipping past Roger’s light grasp, he went forward on his own, moving toward the large Victorian golden oak table and the single place setting that Mrs. Munro had laid for him.

“After I’m finished here,” Holmes said, addressing the boy without turning, “I would very much like to discuss the business of the apiary with you. I wish for you to relate all which has transpired there in my absence. I trust you can offer a detailed and accurate report.”

“I believe so,” the boy responded, watching from the doorway as Holmes propped his canes against the table before seating himself.

“Very well, then,” Holmes finally said, staring across the room to where Roger stood. “Let us reconvene at the library in an hour’s time, shall we? Providing, of course, that your mother’s shepherd’s pie doesn’t finish me off.”

“Yes, sir.”

Holmes reached for the folded napkin, shaking it open and tucking a corner underneath his collar. Sitting upright in the chair, he took a moment to align the flatware, arranging it neatly. Then he sighed through his nostrils, resting his hands evenly on either side of the empty plate: “Where is that woman?”

“I’m coming,” Mrs. Munro suddenly called. She promptly appeared behind Roger, holding a dinner tray that steamed with her cooking. “Move aside, son,” she told the boy. “You’re not helping nobody like that.”

“Sorry,” Roger said, shifting his slender body so that she could gain entrance. And once his mother had rushed by, hurrying to the table, he slowly took a step backward–and another, and another–until he had removed himself from the dining room. However, there would be no more loitering about on his part; otherwise, he knew, his mother might send him home or, at the very least, order him into the kitchen for cleanup duty. Avoiding that eventuality, he made his escape quietly enough, doing so while she served Holmes, stealing away before she could leave the dining room and summon him by name.

But the boy didn’t head outside, fleeing toward the beeyard like his mother might expect–nor did he go inside the library and prepare for Holmes’s questions concerning the apiary. Instead, he crept back upstairs, entering that one room in which only Holmes was allowed to sequester himself: the attic study. In truth, during the weeks that Holmes was traveling abroad, Roger had spent long hours exploring the study–initially taking various old books, dusty monographs, and scientific journals off the shelves, perusing them as he sat at the desk. When his curiosity had been satisfied, he had carefully placed them again on the shelves, making sure they looked untouched. On occasion, he had even pretended that he was Holmes, reclining in the desk chair with his fingertips pressed together, gazing at the window, and inhaling imaginary smoke.

Naturally, his mother was oblivious to his trespassing, for if she had found out, he would have been banished from the house altogether. Yet the more he explored the study (tentatively at first, his hands kept in his pockets), the more daring he became–peeking inside drawers, shaking letters from already-opened envelopes, respectfully holding the pen and scissors and magnifying glass that Holmes had used on a regular basis. Later on, he had begun sifting through the stacks of handwritten pages upon the desktop, mindful not to leave any identifying marks on the pages while, at the same time, trying to decipher Holmes’s notes and incomplete paragraphs; except most of what was read was lost on the boy–either due to the nature of Holmes’s often nonsensical scribbling or as a result of the subject matter being somewhat oblique and clinical. Still, he had studied every page, wishing to learn something unique or revealing about the famous man who now reigned over the apiary.

Roger would, in fact, discover little that shed new light on Holmes. The man’s world, it seemed, was one of hard evidence and uncontestable facts, detailed observations on external matters, with rarely a sentence of contemplation pertaining to himself. Yet among the many piles of random notes and writings, buried beneath it all as if hidden, the boy had eventually come across an item of true interest–a short unfinished manuscript entitled “The Glass Armonicist,” the sheaf of pages kept together by a rubber band. As opposed to Holmes’s other writings on the desk, this manuscript, the boy had immediately noticed, had been composed with great care: The words were easy to distinguish, nothing had been scratched out, and nothing was crammed into the margins or obscured by droplets of ink. What he then read had held his attention–for it was accessible and somewhat personal in nature, recounting an earlier time in Holmes’s life. But much to Roger’s chagrin, the manuscript ended abruptly after only two chapters, leaving its conclusion a mystery. Even so, the boy would dig it out again and again, rereading the text with a hope that he might gather some insight that had previously been missed.

And now, just as during those weeks when Holmes had been gone, Roger sat nervously at the study desk, methodically extracting the manuscript from underneath the organized disorder. Soon the rubber band was set aside, the pages placed near the glow of the table lamp. He studied the manuscript in reverse, briefly scanning the last few pages, while also feeling certain that Holmes had not yet had a chance to continue the text. Then he started at the beginning, bending forward as he read, turning one page over onto another page. If he concentrated without distractions, Roger believed, he could probably get through the first chapter that night. Only when his mother called his name would his head momentarily lift; she was outside, shouting for him from the garden below, searching for him. After her voice faded, he lowered his head once more, reminding himself that he didn’t have much time left–in less than an hour, he was expected at the library; before long the manuscript would need to be concealed exactly as it had originally been found. Until then, an index finger slid below Holmes’s words, blue eyes blinked repeatedly but remained focused, and lips moved without sound as sentences began conjuring familiar scenes within the boy’s mind.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2005

    The Literary Sherlocks

    What a joy it has been of late for us Sherlockians. Not only has there been a batch of new scholarly Holmes-related books to digest and debate--among them THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES--but we¿ve also been blessed with three very interesting and top-notch pastiches. What makes this trio of recent novels so unique is that they come from unlikely writers, individuals who fall more into the literary category than the mystery genre. I am, of course, referring to the three-headed prong that is Caleb Carr (THE ITALIAN SECRETARY), Michael Chabon (THE FINAL SOLUTION), and Mitch Cullin (A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND). *** As I decided to read all three books back to back, I shall comment on them in the order in which they were read. For better or worse, I started with the one that I believed would be the most satisfying of the trio: Caleb Carr¿s THE ITALIAN SECRETARY. However, while I found Carr¿s book engaging and fun for the most part, I was somewhat disappointed with it. In hindsight, my feelings might have more to do with my high regard for Carr¿s previous novels--such as THE ALIENIST--than it does with the actual quality of his Sherlock novel. In other words, had THE ITALIAN SECRETARY been written by someone else, I might not have found myself feeling it lacked the strength and depth of story that I¿ve come to expect from, yes, a Caleb Carr novel. So putting those thoughts aside, I will say that Carr¿s book is mostly well written and he has done a good job at capturing the spirit, intrigue, and style of Doyle. However, it fell a little flat toward the end, giving me the sense of a rushed job. Even so, both his Holmes and Watson are vivid and quite enjoyable, and I do hope he tries his hand at another Sherlock pastiche, taking his time to draw the story out rather than move it so swiftly to its conclusion. A somewhat slight but worthy read nevertheless. *** Next up was Michael Chabon¿s THE FINAL SOLUTION, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer¿s look at an unnamed Sherlock in retirement, set with World War II as the backdrop. This novella--not novel--is actually quite wonderful and the writing is fluid, lyrical, and overall rather excellent. To be frank, I wasn¿t expecting much from such a slim volume that offered us Sherlock as an elderly gentleman. But I was mistaken. It is an intelligent diversion, and, like Mitch Cullin¿s novel, brings the character into a modern age that somewhat confounds him. If I have any complaints, though, it is that Chabon made a point of never mentioning Sherlock by name (he is simply The Old Man), and, by doing so, skirted the character¿s history and much of his background, making him a bit one dimensional. The shortness of the book, too, didn¿t leave much room for the plot (which is, by the way, very interesting) or other characters to be developed at any great length. Still, there was enough here to hold my interest, and, in its own way, THE FINAL SOLUTION not only compliments Mitch Cullin¿s longer work but its themes and story also function as a kind of extended prologue to the last book in the threesome. A wonderfully written, thoughtful addition to Holmes literature that manages to pack a decent punch in too few pages. *** Poor Mitch Cullin, I thought when I finally got around to his A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND. Besides holding the distinction of being ¿the best American novelist you`ve probably never heard of,¿ his attempt to capture Sherlock followed in the shadows of both Carr and Chabon¿s efforts (although, by comparison, I¿m willing to bet Cullin toiled on his book much longer than either of his contemporaries). And yet, of the three, his vision of Holmes is the most interesting and the best realized. The writing is superb, if not downright poetic at times. Most important to me, however, was that the elderly Sherlock of this novel has been humanized in a very realistic manner but yet, without question, still reads and sounds like Doyle¿s creation. That is no easy ac

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2012

    a book of method and memory

    sometimes the old grow old and the young die young, and it is possible to live too long and yet be allowed to endure still ... calls to mind the notion in kierkegaard that memory is a kind of forgetting

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 23, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Not your typical Sherlock Holmes story

    If you bought this book with the expectation of reading about a "new" Sherlock Holmes mystery, think again. Despite the fact that the novel contains a story purportedly written by the Great Detective, I believe you'll be disappointed. The only mystery Holmes encounters in this well-written book is the greatest one of all - life, and its approaching termination. <BR/><BR/>The year is 1947. Holmes is ninety-three years old. Watson, Mrs Hudson, and his brother Mycroft have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, and also, so it seems, has a great deal of Holmes vaunted intellect. He is not senile by any means. On the other hand, he is suffering the same maladies borne by a great number of people who reach his age - for example, it's easier for him to recall things that happened forty years ago than events that took place four days ago. <BR/><BR/>Mitch Cullin takes this basic concept and gives us an idea of what Holmes might have been like at this age, and does so beautifully. As one might expect, Holmes at ninety-three is irascible and impatient, but he has also surprisingly mellowed. He has much more patience with others than is mentioned by Watson in Conan Doyle's original tales. <BR/><BR/>There is also something of a plot, but you need to remember that there is no mystery, scandal, or intrigue involved. The story deals basically with a trip made by Holmes to Japan after the end of World War II, and the relationship he develops with the man who invited him there; and the relationship he has with the son of his new housekeeper - something I am sure the Holmes of Conan Doyle's stories would have emphatically disdained. <BR/><BR/>Since Cullin has implied that Holmes basically retired from the trade of a consulting detective after moving to his Sussex cottage (with the obvious exception of the story related in "His Last Bow"), one wonders what his life would have been like between that relocation and the time of the current tale. I for one would like to know.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2005

    THIS READING IS SHEER PLEASURE

    No one is better equipped to voice of the iconic Sherlock Holmes than British actor Simon Jones. Versatile and engaging, Jones has narrated more than 50 audio books and received accolades for his stage, screen and television work. He brings both humor and accessability to the Sherlock Homes we meet in Cullin's imaginative story. Mitch Cullin won me with his debut novel, Whompyjawed, in 1999. Since then he has more than fulfilled his earlier promise. While a number of writers have attempted to reinvent Holmes, few have done it as ably as Cullin. With 'A Slight Trick of the Mind' we find a 93-year-old Holmes engaged in penning letters, articles and, of course indulging in his favorite pastime, beekeeping. One of his projects involves a character, a young woman we've not met before. Throughout this all too brief tale Holmes continues to reminisce, pondering the past and paths not taken. He remembers a trip to Japan and a chance meeting with someone who turned out to be the son of an acquaintance. Cullin also gives us a friend for Holmes, Roger, who is the son of his housekeeper. The young man becomes both companion and prodigy. Listen for the joy of Simon Jones' reading and a reintroduction to one of literature's most popular figures.

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