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In Mitch Cullin's 'A Slight Trick of the Mind,' Sherlock Holmes is trapped inside an aging body

By Rick Kleffel

Sherlock Holmes is 93 years old and living in a remote Sussex farmhouse in Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind (Nan A. Talese; 272 pages; $23.95 cloth). It's 1947, and while the world has weathered two wars, Holmes has kept himself to himself, tending to his apiary in the wild English countryside. Contrary to the cover copy, Cullin does not humanize the great detective. Instead, he traps the mythic fictional character in an aging human shell. It's a fate we'll all share, a fate the world around him has shared. The century he was born in, within which he created himself, has long passed, and in the bright glow of Hiroshima, Holmes sees life reborn amid chaos and destruction. Cullin's intricately plotted and quietly written novel achieves the power of the dead whispering to us in our dreams.

A Slight Trick of the Mind is written with deceptive simplicity, but ultimately proves to be more complex. Holmes has just returned from a trip to Japan, summoned abroad by Mr. Umezaki, a correspondent who shares his interest in the revitalizing properties of royal jelly and the prickly ash, a weedy plant grown on the beaches of Shimonoseki. Holmes shares his farmhouse with his cook, Mrs. Munro, and her young son, Roger, who has become something of an understudy for Holmes as a beekeeper. As the days grow long and Holmes' memory grows short, he discovers the pages of a narrative that he wrote after the departure of John Watson. Roger has discovered these pages as well, and waits for, hopes for, Holmes to complete his story.

Cullin's vision of Sherlock Holmes is realized with close, careful prose that envelopes the reader as Holmes' ailing body imprisons his soul. Inside, Holmes is every bit as calculating and coldly intelligent as H. G. Wells' Martians. He's a human recorder, a camera of the soul, but the body within which the genius lives is slowly decaying despite his quaint efforts to fight it. A Slight Trick of the Mind reads much like a novel by Henry James. It is a piercing observation of intellect and frailty, one seemingly unstoppable, the other actually unstoppable.

The advantages of having Sherlock Holmes as your main character are considerable, even if he is enfeebled. Cullin's other characters take on a photographic clarity and achieve a depth that is heartbreaking, but this novel belongs to Holmes, the struggling, cranky, inhuman genius trapped within an all-too-human frame.

Cullin's story ambles off into the fields with a misleading ease. We see Holmes at home and in Hiroshima. We hear his account of a minor case long left unfinished. Like Holmes, we at first feel trapped in the seemingly rambling narrative. Of course this is where a slight trick is played upon the reader. There's not a word wasted, not a scene described, that does not smoothly slip into this cunningly constructed story.

Cullin is well set to write this novel. In 1984, USA Today ran an arts cover about the continuing interest in Sherlock Holmes that featured a 15-year-old Mitch Cullin displaying his collection of Holmesiana to Holmes scholar John Bennet Shaw. By that time, Cullins had already written an epic screenplay about Holmes' life.


In keeping with his habit of appearing with Holmes scholars and writers, Mitch Cullin will be interviewed by local author Laurie King, Monday, May 23, 7:30pm, Capitola Book Cafe. 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.

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From the May 18-25, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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