It is 1947, and the long-retired Sherlock Holmes, now 93, lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse with his housekeeper and her young son. He tends to his bees, writes in his journal, and grapples with the diminishing powers of his mind. But in the twilight of his life, as people continue to look to him for answers, Holmes revisits a case that may provide him with answers of his own to questions he didn’t even know he was asking–about life, about love, and about the limits of the mind’s ability to know.
You know as soon as you read the blurb that this is going to be a heartbreaker, and knowing that, I started reading this book with a slight bittersweet feeling in me. This wasn’t helped by the beautiful prose that sweeps you along gently, and before you know it – you’ve read half the book in one sitting.
I decided I absolutely had to read this book after I heard that my boy Sir Ian McKellen would be playing Holmes in a movie version of the novel. That, my friends, is genius casting. I can perfectly visualise McKellen in this role. Everything from Holmes’s gentlemanly aloofness, to the desperate search for his scattered memories. He will break all our hearts.
The book was written as though Holmes existed, both as a character in Watson’s stories, and a real person. Two different characters, but essentially still the same person.
Which in this book’s world makes him a celebrity. This parallels the canon, with Holmes grumbling about Watson romanticising the stories – saying Watson was “better with fiction than fact”. He makes a few charming little digs, the classic “I never actually wore a deerstalker and smoked a pipe,” to the intimate, “I never did call him Watson – he was John. Simply John.”
I loved this. It makes him so real.
The themes of this book are so clear they practically leap of every page and smack you in the face. Death, love, loneliness. Change.
It is made up of three main stories, all interwoven in no particular style. One is Holmes’s present-day life, one is his reminiscing on a recent trip to Japan, and the last is an unfinished manuscript from his earlier days, which he keeps stuffed in his desk draw – cluttered and almost forgotten.
The novel’s construct mimics Holmes’s aging mind. Brilliant, disjointed, and yet flowing easily from one thought to the next. It describes facts and stories spontaneously, and then leaves them – like a wandering mind – to circle back to them later and pick up where he left off. Sometimes the stories are retold almost word for word, but with clearer context the next time around. This beautifully mirrors the chaos of Holmes’s mind as he heartbreakingly tries to grasp and make sense of his fading memories. This seems like it shouldn’t work, and probably many writers wouldn’t be able to make it work. But Cullin nails it. It’s never confusing, just constantly intriguing.
This book truly is beautiful, and those who love Holmes will find it difficult to see him depicted this way.
However, (and there is always a however) I have to admit that I wasn’t really that sold on the romance storyline. But I think this might just be a personal thing as I don’t see Holmes as a romantic figure in any way (except his platonic romance with Watson, but that’s a conversation for another day).
So I found his obsession with a random woman very out of character. He also went about it in a really stalkerish and, face it Sherlock, pretty creepy way. I suppose this was in character, as he clearly had no idea what he was doing, having never done it before.
Still I wasn’t sure it was necessary to have in the storyline, I’m not sure it added much. Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know. I’m not much of a romantic.
However, this book is written so softly, you almost read it like a whisper. Cullin wrote some stunningly subtle paragraphs that described nothing and everything. More than once I had to stop and think about what I had read, slowly digesting it to full appreciate it.
This is probably as human as Holmes is ever going to get. Seeing such an amazing mind slowing down is remarkable in its truthfulness, meaning that even that one of the greatest minds in the world (albeit fictional) can succumb to such a human condition. This isn’t something unique to Holmes, but a fear we all hold.
Truly, aging is the greatest mystery Sherlock Holmes has ever faced.
Many, many beautiful paragraphs and chapters, but here are a few of my favourite words from Holmes:
“And here it is that I miss John more than ever.”
“I have outlived everything that has defined me.”
“Death, like crime, is commonplace. Logic, on the other hand, is rare… It is always upon logic rather than death that one should dwell.”
Read it if you like: Thinking. Literature and philosophy. Prose. Having your heart feel like it’s being squeezed. Upcoming movies that star Sir Ian.