A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin

Review by Chris Redmond

Sherlock Holmes grows old. It is not entirely a new idea — H. F. Heard wrote A Taste for Honey in 1941, and one of the most affecting pages in William S. Baring-Gould's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, now almost fifty years old, involves the aged detective looking out over the water from his Sussex home — but it still has possibilities. In this literary novel, published in 2005, American author Mitch Cullin explores some of them.

I call it a literary novel to make clear that readers who would scorn the average Sherlockian pastiche, or any other package of genre fiction, will very likely give A Slight Trick shelf-room. Mainstream reviews of the book have spoken of Cullin's perceptive interpretation of human nature (and of old age, although he's still only in his early forties) and his masterful use of language. The former may be true — I do not put myself forward as a judge of such things — but in fact the latter claim is open to much dispute. Every page of this book seems to have an awkward moment or two, a word or phrase that the reader thinks could surely have been improved. Perhaps it's intentional; masterful writers do that sort of thing, don't they? And at least this much can be said for Cullin's skill with style: the passages that are presented as Sherlock Holmes's own writing sound very different from those that are in the voice of a third-person narrator. (And neither sounds anything like the voice of Watson, or of Arthur Conan Doyle, or of Holmes as Doyle presents him in, say, "The Lion's Mane.")

There is a good deal of human nature in this book, a good deal of effort to get inside a powerful mind that is beginning to lose its power after ninety years of energetic life. There's also a good deal about the relationship that human beings can have with bees, a topic that a few other Sherlockian books have explored, and that is apparently fascinating Laurie R. King these days. What the book does not offer in abundance, disconcertingly for a reader used to detective stories, is plot, at least not plot that leads to a definite resolution. A Slight Trick tells three stories, intertwined: Holmes begins to develop a close relationship with a young man who assists him with his bees, but the boy's life is tragically cut short; Holmes visits postwar Japan, including Hiroshima, and tells an elaborate lie to a man who thinks the detective may know the truth about what became of his missing father; and Holmes recalls one of his minor cases, an experience in which he briefly met a woman whose image has preoccupied him ever since.

Of the three stories, the Sherlockian reader may like the third one ("The Glass Armonicist") best. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in the end we (and Holmes) know more than we knew at the beginning. But literary fiction does not necessarily work that way. And perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that a serious novelist can write a full-length work about Sherlock Holmes and face no accusations of slumming.