The Final Solution

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a detective story, but unusually there are two strands to the mystery. The first is the expected mystery that is introduced and finally solved during the course of the narrative. The second, the identity of the un-named central character who is referred to as the old man, is left for the reader to work out.

I started this book with no real idea what to expect. The blurb on the back of the book promised a young Jewish refugee, a parrot with an odd habit of reciting numbers and an 89 year old former detective. The title and a quick glance at the cover of the book suggested a story connected to Nazi Germany, but I missed the fact that it was in fact my first clue as to the former detective’s identity. (I shouldn’t have missed it – I’ve read The Final Problem enough times, but I wasn’t expecting the link.)

The book opens by introducing us to the old man as he encounters nine year old Linus Steinman and his parrot for the first time. The opening chapter also introduces the reader to the first of the puzzles: why is the parrot reciting strings of numbers in German? Given that the book is set in July 1944, a variety of possible – and bizarre – solutions are hinted at during the course of the story.

The opening chapters move quickly; we are introduced to the Panicker household where Linus lodges and then quite suddenly a man is killed and the enigmatic parrot disappears.

Mixed into the tale are enough clues for the reader to deduce who the old man is; for although Chabon never identifies him by name, he identifies him very clearly by means of references to his former life, his habits and even his style of speech.

I have to confess I was very slow on the uptake here; I didn’t cotton on until a description of the old man searching the mud where the murdered man had been found reminded me rather vividly of a scene in another tale altogether. From that point on, my reading changed, my mind translated all of the old man’s dialogue into a familar and well-loved voice, the same voice that now provides my mental dialogue in other stories about this rather famous old man.

Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution is set against the backdrop of the fate of the Jews in occupied Europe. Like the character of Joe Kavalier, Linus Steinmann is obviously traumatised by these events, but in this case we get very little insight into what the boy is thinking or feeling; we see him only through the eyes of the other characters. We do however see a side of the old man that was not revealed in accounts by another author: a human frailty. We read of his concerns about his aging body, his fears about dying and his disappointment at being poorly equipped to comfort the distraught and parrot-less Linus.

Whilst most of the story is told from the perspective of the old man, other characters provide the narration for sections of the story, including one chapter which is narrated by Bruno the parrot. This could have gone horribly wrong, but Chabon pulls it off with great aplomb. In fact the parrot has a very nice turn of phrase as he describes how the “man who smelled of boiled-bird flesh was going mad.”

The old man’s body may be aging, but clearly his legendary mind is still up to the challenge. Both the murderer and the fate of the missing parrot are discovered. The final scene also reveals the final solution: the reason why Bruno the parrot has been reciting numbers.

I really enjoyed this book. It was written in a style that was perfectly adapted to the period to which it pays homage, but it also included the clever and beautiful use of vocabulary that I loved in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This book is much shorter than that epic tale, but is well worth reading; recommended for fans of Michael Chabon, classic detective fiction and a certain detective.

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