Book Review: Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind”

By Reneen Imtiaz Khan
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To take Sherlock Holmes, one of the most beloved and timeless fictional characters in literature, and pen a book on him is no easy task. Being a “Sherlockian”, I’ve enjoyed all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books on the famous detective, and have watched the character being depicted in television shows, movies etc., all of which have been based on cases described in the original books.

In A Slight Trick of the Mind, author Mitch Cullin has not partaken of any material from the original works, save for some names and intriguing mannerisms that readers have come to relate with Sherlock Holmes. That attempt in itself is a unique undertaking. The book starts off in a world where Holmes is not the astute sleuth we’ve always known but rather, a 93 year old with fading health prone to random musings amidst his analytical thought process, and annoyed at the world in general.

The author relates the inner workings of Sherlock such that not only do we see his mind at work, but also catch a glimpse of his emotions at play, whether they be about love, friendship, affection, or about regret, pity and angst at life’s fallibility at that age. It is then of little surprise that Cullin has depicted his own father in Holmes, and all the health issues are gleaned from his father’s life. This persona endears the reader to the otherwise unapproachable and intimidating Sherlock Holmes.

The book is an amalgam of 3 intertwined stories – two recollections of Holmes’ past, and one the present he is living.

In the present, readers find Sherlock Holmes recently returned from a trip abroad to his cottage in England, where apart from him, live his housekeeper and her son, Roger. Cullin shows us the bonding between two people, both at the extremes of age – one almost a century old, and one barely a teenager – over topics as obscure as apiaries and farming bees. While his housekeeper’s overt concern bothers him, Holmes finds himself settling comfortably into the role of the father figure Roger sees him in. No one is more surprised at this development than Holmes himself. The connection between Holmes and the bees is revealed in due course. At this point in his life, Holmes finds himself deprived of all his past relations; in his acquaintance with Roger, he realises all that has been missing in his life, perhaps unknowingly and perhaps by design. Or rather, for all his stoic belief in logic and reasoning, readers see him realising that he is indeed human after all, and what affects the normal emotional populace has left a mark on him as well.

One of the two recollections is from one of his rather commonplace cases, where there’s discontent between a husband and wife, and Holmes’ help is sought out to set straight some peculiarities; but which also results in unforeseen consequences. As Holmes’ romantic side has always been rather ambiguous, we see him trying to interpret human emotions through logic, and end up quite stumped in the process.

The second recollection takes us to Japan, struggling with the after-effects of World War 2, when two atomic bombs were dropped, first on Hiroshima and a few days later, on Nagasaki;

 “men and women living in makeshift huts and packing crates; housewives with babies on their backs lined up to purchase rice and sweet potatoes; the countless hungry Asian bodies moving past him on the street, those ravenous eyes glancing every so often at the disoriented Englishman walking among them. Behind the smiles, the nods, the bows, the general politeness, there lurked something else that had grown malnourished.”

With the help of an Oxford-educated Mr.Umezaki, on whose invitation Sherlock Holmes comes to Japan, the latter goes in search of a certain prickly ash from Shimonoseki that, according to his findings, slows ageing while bestowing other potential benefits to the body. Holmes, at this time, is described by the author “with flowing hair shorn to the scalp, beard reduced to a stubble on his jutting chin and sunken cheeks”. Here, too, it is easy to discern his sense of pride in himself, which age is forcibly taking away. Even when he dreams of himself, the canes that aid him in life are conspicuously absent. And the mind, the faculties of which he prizes above all else, is seen to be flailing, a phenomena which irks Holmes perpetually.

All in all, A Slight Trick of the Mind is a thought-provoking read. If you’re looking for a fast-paced novel, this is not the right book for you. The 3 stories build up slowly, and come together poignantly in the end. Cullin has cleverly structured the book in a rather declamatory fashion so readers can see facets of Sherlock Holmes beyond those he is normally portrayed with, and imagine what they might of him. For people like me, who have always been avid followers of the detective and his works, this book was an enjoyable read, as Cullin depicted what the character got up to in his later years. Maybe Holmes expected the last decade of his life to be as distinguished as his younger days, and maybe he didn’t find it so; sadly, no one seemed bothered. For the world does take notice mostly when the mighty fall, and maybe some part of him expected to be counted among them.

So when you pick up this book, be ready for a nostalgic trip down memory lane to 221B Baker Street.

As Sherlock Holmes told Dr.Watson, “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

And so shall I end my review, and encourage you as readers to form your own opinions. Happy reading!

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About Reneen Imtiaz Khan

Enough of a grammar-buff to stress even her Editor out, 27-year-old Reneen plans to channel her OCD-ness into writing books, skydiving, learning new languages, exploring Pakistan and ... meeting Shahrukh Khan (atleast once). While her unusual sense of humour has gotten her into trouble before, it didn't stop her from gaining a medical degree from Karachi's Jinnah Medical and Dental College. Currently residing in Toronto and looking to do her residency, Reneen finds that nothing inspires like kindness, and that the good in others is derived by the good we put into everything we give.

  • Maida

    What a wonderful review. I would love to see what you come up with young sherlockian 🙂
    Definitely sounds like a good read.

    • Reneen

      A humble thankyou. And yes, the book is definitely worth reading!