The Book: A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullins
The Challenge: A book that has been turned into a movie
In case you have never heard me talk about anything for more than five minutes or never been to the group seating area in the shop, you should know this: I love Sherlock Holmes. I started reading the stories in the 4th grade (much to the annoyance of my teacher, but that's another story). I've seen him played by a veritable legion of actors on stage and screen; he's been placed in settings varying from the streets of Victorian London to the 42nd Century (yes, that's a thing); in fact, I would argue that he is one of the most written about characters in the whole of fiction. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that not only was there a new movie (Mr. Holmes) coming out with Ian McKellen playing Sherlock Holmes (commence happy flailing) but that it is based off of a book I had never heard of. Naturally, I found a copy of it.
A Slight Trick of the Mind is set during Holmes' waning years. He's 93, lives in Sussex with his bees, and is dealing with the problems of aging. If you've ever seen the Jeremy Brett miniseries (and if you haven't, go out and find it, it is phenomenal), the Sherlock Holmes depicted in this book is very much what I imagine that version would be as an old man. He's no longer the dashing young man of the late 1890s, but he is still the methodical, witty man that you encounter in the original stories.
The plot itself is simultaneously complicated and really straight forward: Sherlock Holmes returns from a trip to Japan in 1947 and has to deal with a tragedy that befalls his housekeeper and her son. So far, so good, but that's where it gets complex: the storyline flips between the events post-Japan trip, the Japan trip, and a case that happened at the end of Holmes' career involving an "intriguing woman", and does so in a method reminiscent of elderly Holmes' own straying thoughts. There is not much of a linear plot, as events are occasionally depicted a few times, but from different perspectives and with the reader having increasingly more information as to what is actually going on. Somehow, this works brilliantly.
While I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a straight forward mystery, I would recommend it as a well done novel. A Slight Trick of the Mind is more of an exploration of the effects of aging, fame, emotions, and humanity's place in a world post-WWII all seen through the eyes of one of the most famous characters in literature. Here, a very human Holmes has to constantly deal with the concept of living up to his legend. He often has to point out that a lot of the "facts" about him are exaggerations: he is more than capable of making mistakes (some of them with terrible consequences); his observation skills are just that: skills, not a supernatural power; and, though he has himself no concept of love, he is not an unfeeling, inhuman person. Further, his famous energy and powers of deduction are starting to dim with time. There is a great difference between a person at 25 and a person at 93, and he and the people he encounters have to deal with that over the course of the novel. As for the last theme, the trip to Japan puts the most emphasis on it. Holmes is a product of Victorian upper class society, for all his bohemian tendencies. He is logical, methodical, something of a stoic, and believes that there is an explanation to everything and that people are ultimately rational beings. This novel asks what, then, would such a character make when faced with the devastation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima? Not only that, but here is a man who has lived through two world wars, the death of everyone close to him, and who now comes face to face with the ultimate symbol of "man's barbarism". Rather than give into despair, however, Cullins' Holmes works out his own answer to the seemingly irrationality of the world, and the book ends on a hopeful, though incredibly melancholic, note.
A Slight Trick of the Mind is a good read; a thoughtful, poignant, and occasionally poetic meditation of humanity and aging. It is a heartfelt examination of a beloved character and his place in a world so culturally removed from the one he first appears in and which defined him, and is in my opinion completely unfilmable. Seriously, I have no idea how the movie makers managed to turn this into a coherent film, and I will be very interested to see how they pull it off.