Synopses & Reviews
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
, prose magician Michael Chabon conjured up the golden age of comic books intertwining history, legend, and storytelling verve. In The Final Solution
, he has condensed his boundless vision to craft a short, suspenseful tale of compassion and wit that reimagines the classic nineteenth-century detective story.
In deep retirement in the English country-side, an eighty-nine-year-old man, vaguely recollected by locals as a once-famous detective, is more concerned with his beekeeping than with his fellow man. Into his life wanders Linus Steinman, nine years old and mute, who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his sole companion: an African gray parrot. What is the meaning of the mysterious strings of German numbers the bird spews out a top-secret SS code? The keys to a series of Swiss bank accounts perhaps? Or something more sinister? Is the solution to this last case the real explanation of the mysterious boy and his parrot beyond even the reach of the once-famed sleuth?
Subtle revelations lead the reader to a wrenching resolution. This brilliant homage, which won the 2004 Aga Khan Prize for fiction, is the work of a master storyteller at the height of his powers.
"Initially published in the Paris Review in 2003, Chabon's first significant adult fiction since his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) continues his sophisticated, if here somewhat skewed, appropriation of pop artifacts in this case one of the greatest pop artifacts of all, Sherlock Holmes. As fans of the great detective know, after retirement Holmes moved from London to Sussex, where he spent his days keeping bees. Chabon's story takes place during WWII, when Holmes is 89 and intent on bee-keeping only until a mysterious boy wanders into town. The boy is remarkable for two reasons: he's clearly intelligent but is mute, and he keeps a parrot that mouths, among other utterances, numbers in German. When the parrot is stolen, local cops turn to Holmes, and he's intrigued enough to dust off his magnifying glass and go to work. The writing here is taut and polished, and Chabon's characters and depictions of English country life are spot on. It's notable, though, that Chabon refers to Holmes never by name but persistently as 'the old man' notable because it's difficult to discern a reason other than self-conscious artistry not to name Holmes; the scenes in the novel that grip the strongest are those that feature Holmes, and more credit is due to Conan Doyle than to Chabon for that. Neither a proper mystery nor particularly fine literature, this haunting novella, for all its strengths, lies uneasily between the two and will fully please few fans of each." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Chabon's move into the world of detective fiction produces mostly admirable results....A fun, short snip of a detective yarn that, even so, leaves more questions than answers." Kirkus Reviews
"[T]he descriptive passages...are exceptional, on par with the best, most tightly written sections of [Kavalier and Clay]. And so Chabon makes good on his claim: a successful detective story need not be lacking in literary merit." Deborah Friedell, The New York Times Book Review
"Chabon's writing can be both startlingly clear or laced with intricacies and detours. One chapter is told from the point of view of the parrot." School Library Journal
"Perhaps most striking about the novel...is the author's pure, exuberant delight in language." BookPage
"[A] blandish kind of mystery tale, with no clear audience, no discernible necessity, and so only a modestly satisfying conclusion." The Boston Globe
"[Chabon's] new novella...pair[s] a delightful procedural with a haunting meditation on mortality. Chabon sacrifices neither pure entertainment nor literary achievement in the process." The Christian Science Monitor
"A single-sitting read at 131 pages, it's sweet Chabon candy as we await his next classic....This novella is one delicious snack." Seattle Times
"Although The Final Solution begins in a confusing fashion, it settles down into a deceptively profound tale that reflects on the lengths to which humans will go to crack the inscrutability of the Holocaust's evil." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"What's great about The Final Solution is the way Chabon establishes an elegiac feeling around Holmes...What's not so great is the plot, which involves a stolen parrot and a murder and secrets from a Nazi concentration camp. It's mildly absorbing but never really takes off." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
Retired to the English countryside, an eighty-nine-year-old man, rumored to be a once-famous detective, is more concerned with his beekeeping than with his fellow man. Into his life wanders Linus Steinman, nine years old and mute, who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his sole companion: an African gray parrot.
What is the meaning of the mysterious strings of German numbers the bird spews out -- a top-secret SS code? The keys to a series of Swiss bank accounts? Or do they hold a significance both more prosaic and far more sinister?
Though the solution may be beyond even the reach of the once-famous sleuth, the true story of the boy and his parrot is subtly revealed in a wrenching resolution.
About the Author
Michael Chabon is the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Summerland (a novel for children), The Final Solution, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and Gentlemen of the Road, as well as the short story collections A Model World and Werewolves in Their Youth and the essay collections Maps and Legends and Manhood for Amateurs. He is the chairman of the board of the MacDowell Colony. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
Reading Group Guide
1. "For the first time in a very many years, he felt the old vexation, the mingled impatience and pleasure at the world's beautiful refusal to yield up its mysteries without a fight" (page 8). Why do you think the arrival of Linus and his parrot awakens the old man's curiosity and passion for detective work?
2. Discuss the title, The Final Solution, and its dual meaning in the story.
3. "Then he reached into the old conjuror's pocket ... and took out his glass. It was brass and tortoise shell, and bore around its bezel an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life" (page 29). What meaning does this hold for the readers? What else did you find mysterious about our detective?
4. "When he heard the old man's name, something flickered, a dim memory, in the eyes of Mr. Kalb" (page 37). "Years and years ago his name -- itself redolent now of the fustian and rectitude of that vanished era -- had adorned the newspapers and police gazettes ... " (page 43). Why do you think the author avoids telling us the name of the 'old man'? Do you think it is an effective technique? Why or why not?
5. What significance or clues, if any, did you find in the illustrations on pages 7, 34, 76, 89, and 130?
6. " ... his shame was compounded by the intimate knowledge that Richard Shane's brutal murder in the road behind the vicarage had echoed, in outline and particulars, the secret trend of his own darkest imaginings" (page 94). What are Mr. Panicker's 'darkest imaginings'? Why do you think he is so tortured? How is his marriage used in the book?
7. "He was, by irremediable nature, a man who looked at things, even when, as now, clearly they terrified him" (page 99). What things do you think terrifies the old man? Be the detective here and piece together what you know about the old man's life.
8. " ... he was confronted by not simply the continued existence of the city but, amid the smoking piles of brick and jagged windowpanes, by the irrepressible, inhuman force of its expansion" (page 101). Destruction versus hope is a common struggle in war accounts. What do you think makes Chabon's approach to this struggle unique?
9. Consider the character of the detective: "It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue" (page 83). "I doubt very much ... if we shall ever learn what significance, if any, those numbers may hold" (page 129). If this is the detective's last case, do you believe he is a success even though he fails to find answers in Bruno's mysterious set of numbers? Why or why not?
10. The African gray parrot, the old man's bees, and the many references to trains give The Final Solution a rich population of symbols and motifs. Discuss how each contributes to the narrative.
11. What meaning is hidden in the train song? To whom, and how, is this book an homage? How did you feel when you read the last sentence in The Final Solution?
12. Consider the theme of detection, discovering the true character of something or someone, within the novella and the detective's conclusion "that it was the insoluble problems the false leads and the cold cases that reflected the true nature of things" (page 131). Do you agree with this? Why or why not? What other themes did you find in the novella?