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The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon

Solution Unsolved: The Murderer is Caught, but the Biggest Mystery is Left Unsolved

Michael Chabon's great strength has always been his short stories -- whether 1998's "Son of the Wolfman" or the stories of 1992's "A Model World," they are consistently better than the uneven The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and more heartfelt and honest than Wonder Boys, the two novels that made him famous. And because of this, Chabon's new novella The Final Solution, is most welcome.

The Final Solution exploits Chabon's great, underappreciated strength -- the short form -- while steering him away from the occasional slips into self-indulgence and self-importance that mar both Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys. At 131 pages, it is the perfect length for Chabon's gifts, and contains the same verbal acuity and dexterity that make Chabon's novels wildly successful. But as this book is genre fiction -- a detective story -- and even contains five beautiful illustrations by Jay Ryan, it remains to be seen whether the average reader would consider this a fun diversion from Chabon's "serious" work or as a serious work in and of itself.

I must admit that reading a book with illustrations slightly embarrassed me when I was in public with it. Nonetheless, the writing deserves to be taken seriously, to be understood as literature. It is not, admittedly, on a par with the best of Garcia Marquez or Virginia Woolf, or even Saul Bellow; but it is the equal of the rest of Chabon's oeuvre. But even more than that, it is a joy to read. It is deftly written, and full of charming turns of phrase; e.g., the central character, simply called "the old man", feels that "time had bleached away the ornate pattern of his intellect, leaving a blank white scrap".

The story begins in 1944, as the old man, an 89-year old former detective, sees a boy with a parrot on his shoulder walking down the electrified rail tracks. He rushes out to save the child from electrocution, and discovers that Linus, the child, is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who speaks no English. Even more intriguing, Bruno the parrot sings in strings of German numbers, along with bits of Goethe and Schiller.

Linus lives at a nearby boarding house run by an Anglican vicar and his wife. Placed there by the Aid Society, benefiting Jewish refugees, and seemingly dyslexic, he does not speak a word to anyone. The other lodgers grow keenly interested in the parrot, and especially in the numbers it sings. One even takes to writing them all down, filling pages upon pages of his notebook with nonsensical numbers that could be a bank account, German ciphers, or something else entirely, but certainly valuable. One night, a lodger is killed while stealing the parrot; in the morning, the body is found, but the parrot is gone. The vicar's son is quickly fingered, but is not the culprit. The old man is called in and takes the case.

Linus is strongly attached to Bruno, just as Bruno is to him. As Linus sinks even deeper into ennui -- he has been there from the start of the book, as befits a character so displaced -- the old man endeavors to find the parrot and solve the murder. This being a detective novella, the old man succeeds, exactly where the police would have otherwise failed. But one mystery remains unsolved for the old man and the other police officers -- in fact, for everyone save Linus and the parrot: the mystery of the German numbers that the bird sings. It is a reminder that even in a detective story, which by its nature punishes the wicked, some crimes cannot be amended, ameliorated, or reconciled, especially the crimes from which The Final Solution derives its name. And it is a reminder of what little 9-year old Linus has left, even as everyone else around him considers justice served.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
by Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate: ISBN 0-06-066340-X
Hardcover: 131 pp. (November 2004)