A Slight Trick of the Mind

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In this stunningly original novel that nevertheless falls in the vicinity of such deja-vu fictive reconstructions as Michael Cunningham's The Hours (2000) and Colm Toibin's The Master (2004), Mitch Cullin brings back to life a Sherlock Holmes who, at ninety-three, is more wistfully thoughtful—more Joseph Conrad's "one of us"—than ever before.

To taste the delicious conversion wrought by Cullin, the reader should think deerstalker cap (this Holmes denies he ever wore one), impregnable empiricism (the old detective must learn to accept tears as reflective of "the sum-total of all he had seen, known, cared for, lost, and kept stifled"), and infallible memory, which is failing him and, as one reviewer puts it, "making consciousness itself a mystery he is less and less equipped to solve."

A Slight Trick of the Mind, like the film about the mathematician John Nash, is a study of a beautiful mind under assault by unanswerable emotional demands. It is 1947, two years after the bombing of Hiroshima ended history's most devastating war while releasing moral questions that today are as vexing as ever. After accepting an invitation to another hemisphere—of mind as well as of geography—Holmes is back in his Sussex farmhouse and apiary with a housekeeper and her young son Roger, whose worshipful attention, both to the keeper and his bees, stirs paternal feelings in the childless Holmes.

Cullin flashes back and forth for much of his story between the familiar—the apiary—and the ineffable—Hiroshima. Added to these overlapping narratives, fellow author Dan Chiasson notes, is a third, this one in the form of an unfinished first-person tale, written by Holmes about an infatuation with the mysterious wife of a client—a manuscript uncovered in his study by the tireless Roger.

Each of these scenarios turns on Sherlockian denial of self, a la Arthur Conan Doyle, and a D. H. Lawrencean conversion from the mind consciousness of the born logician to the blood consciousness of one who in old age awakens to vulnerability.