My first instinct was pretty much to dismiss A Slight Trick of the Mind, and I had already written a few paragraphs panning the thing. On second reflection, while still not enthusiastic about it, I do have to admit that despite shortcomings which I will discuss further on, it does have a quiet presence.
Fellow Sherlock Holmes fan(atics) may understand some of my quibbles, but the author, despite his being the principal character, is not concerned with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes of legend, but rather in his rarely heretofore exposed naked humanity, and his descent into the abyss of total loss of self in his old age.
In the late 1940s, Holmes has entered into extreme old age and spends his reclusive retirement amongst the bees he keeps and cultivates most religiously. He turns away nearly all visitors, and sees only his housekeeper and her young son on a regular basis. Much of the novel is comprised of Holmes’ retreat into one major past event, and the child’s and reader’s retreat into an event even deeper in the past. The older Holmes acts, the more vibrant the youth of the housekeeper’s child.
This novel showcases the slow crumbling of mind and memory in old age, reversing the way a reader would have normally looked at Holmes; the reader is now the mentally superior as he fails. The writing style even mirrors Holmes’ mental decay. Thoughts wander, threads are dropped and picked up at random, key pieces of information are alluded to, forgotten, discovered, and forgotten again.
The reader even feels frustration along with the frustration Holmes feels at the realization that his mind is no longer sharp, facts are no longer at his immediate disposal, and the logical machine that he once was has broken down. Storylines slip through the reader’s fingers, fading away out of sight for an unknown period of time. Holmes can no longer trust his own mind not to play tricks on him, and so Cullin plays tricks on the reader, doling out tidbits at a time, withholding morsels at key moments.
Mitch Cullin takes the reader into the mind of an elderly person in order to experience vicariously the disintegration of mental faculties in a slow, but crushing fashion. But this method pervades the entire book, and gets tedious and frustrating. It is all very well to get into the mind of a character and live the experience, but this method in this case requires the reader to have a singular patience with the jilted cadence and convolutions of the story, and unless you are the type to sit down happily with Tolstoy on a sunny afternoon, you probably do not have the overwhelming amount of patience for such a meandering story – after all, we all get older every day, and most of us do not want to dwell on old age more than we have to.
It is hard to keep your attention trained on A Slight Trick of the Mind, and these days there are too many distractions for the average person to work so hard on a book. It is not a bad book, but neither is it great. And while it may be an accurate portrayal of the psychology and loss in old age, it is a damn depressing thing to look forward to. Furthermore, I did not care to see what was for me a childhood hero tottering ingloriously toward total senility and the great unconsciousness. There is such an overwhelming sense of futility that the reader gets little satisfaction.