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Book Reviews   |    
A Slight Trick of the Mind
Reviewed by Richard Balon, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.12.1638
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by Mitch Cullin; New York, Doubleday, 2005, 272 pages, $23.95

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Vague memories of reading Sherlock Holmes stories in my youth made me a bit hesitant to read a Sherlock Holmes story written by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was thinking, How can a young American write a new story of Sherlock Holmes, an iconic figure of mystery literature lovers? How real and credible could that be? As it happens, Mitch Cullin, who has written six other novels, has written a fairly authentic novel about Sherlock Holmes, living, at the twilight of his life, in post-World War II rural England.

The book intertwines three story lines. The first begins as the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes returns from a trip to postwar Japan. His household is run by a widow whose young son, Roger, takes care of Holmes's beloved apiary. Holmes, who does not have a child, develops a paternal affection for this intelligent, caring, and respectful fatherless boy. They share a passion for bees, and Holmes teaches Roger everything about beekeeping and the mysterious life of bees.

The second story line involves an unknown Holmes case from the early 1900s. It is a sad story of "The Glass Armonicist"—Mrs. Ann Keller, with whom Holmes was seemingly infatuated. It is also the first case undertaken by Holmes himself, while his partner, Dr. Watson, was "lazing at the seaside with the woman who would soon become the third Mrs. Watson." Unknown to Holmes, young Roger is secretly reading the story as Holmes is trying to finish it.

The last story line deals with Holmes's visit to 1947 Japan. He is invited by a Japanese admirer, Mr. Umezaki. While they travel around, visiting, among other places, harrowed postwar Hiroshima, it becomes evident that Mr. Umezaki had an ulterior motive in inviting Holmes to Japan. He wants to find out what happened to his long-missing father, a Japanese diplomat. All three story lines come to a surprising end, which I won't reveal here.

Cullin brings us a loving portrait of an old and frail detective whose memory and mental acuity are slowly fading—a result, as Holmes worries, "of changes in his frontal lobe due to aging—how else could one explain why some memories stayed intact, while others were substantially impaired?" The Holmes of this book is a man contemplating his life, his image of a "man incapable of feelings"—a perception he believes to be his fault. However, through these three intertwined stories, Holmes becomes a more caring, thoughtful human being.

A Slight Trick of the Mind is a moving depiction not only of aging and age-related mental changes but also of the reflective nature of old age. It is beautifully written, with many poetic passages, even about seemingly ordinary things, such as harvesting honey. It is a pleasant, enjoyable, and recommended read for long winter evenings. I hope and bet that even hard-core fans of Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes will enjoy it as much as I did.

Dr. Balon is professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan.




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