It is wartime England and in a south coast village an old man watches a boy, with a brightly coloured parrot, walk along a train line. The boy is silent, a Jewish refugee from the horrors in Europe, while the parrot cannot keep quiet, happily speaking long sentences in German.
The old man, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is a famous “Consulting Detective” who has retired to the countryside to keep bees. This encounter with Linus Steinmen, the mute boy, draws the old man into his life and occupants of the home, the local vicarage, were the boy lives. And then another member of the vicarage’s household is murdered.
Here Chabon has tried to write a “new” Sherlock Holmes story but as an old man no longer interested in crime. The Second World War setting is interesting but not enough on its own to carry this book, neither is the character and situation of the old man. The character just feels old, there isn’t any regret, loss or even introspection of an old man looking back on his life.
The plot did not have enough mystery to hold my attention; the mystery here did not feel important enough to push the plot forward and there wasn’t enough plot, without it, to hold my attention. Unfortunately, the other characters are not strong enough either. So many of the occupants of the vicarage were interchangeable because they were so poorly drawn. The only character who stood out was the vicar’s wife, but that was mainly because she was the only female character there.
The book felt like a clever writing exercise, to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in the twilight of his life, but its execution was far too clever, without the feeling for the characters. There was too much extraneous information, as if Chabon was showing off the research he did for this book, but there was so little feeling that these characters were actually living during a war. These people just did not come alive for me. I did not find here the characterisation I have enjoyed in other of Chabon’s books.
Sometimes writing exercises should just stay that, sometimes they do not make good books.
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