Каталог статей из сборников научных конференций и научных журналов- Tropes of Trauma in Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind”

Научный мультидисциплинарный журнал
Paradigmata poznání. - 2021. - № 1

Tropes of Trauma in Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind”

O. Tupakhina, Candidate of Philological Sciences, associate professor

ORCID: 0000-0003-2920-1167,

e-mail: tupakhina@gmail.com,

Zaporizhzhya National University,

Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine


For over a century, Sherlock Holmes has been serving as a cultural icon for several generations of readers and writers of popular fiction. Since 1892, when the first Sherlockian pastiches and parodies were published, the number of incremental texts based on Conan Doyle’s canon has been continuously increasing. By the beginning of the XXI century, the most recent bibliographical index, “The Universal Sherlock Holmes”, contained over 25 000 publications of various derivative texts directly influenced by Conan Doyle’s original works [1]. For the last 5 years alone, numerous studies of Holmes’ phenomenon in the modern culture appeared, including “Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Miltimedia Afterlives” (ed. by Sabine Vanacker and Catherine Wynne), “Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century” (ed. by Lynnette Porter), “The Alternative Sherlock Holmes” by Peter Ridgeway Watt and Joseph Green etc.

Far as we are from labeling popular fiction a “low” form of art (for, as Ross MacDonald has reasonably argued, its formulaic recurrence contributes to a set of conventions that “hold a civilization together as nothing else can” [in 2, 186–187]), it should still be mentioned that vast majority of non-canonic Sherlockian fiction has been severely criticized for its formal and conceptual monody. In 1976, Jacques Barzun regarded most of Sherlockian pastiches as “unsuccessful” [3]. Jon L. Lellenberg expressed the same opinion about the flood of “commercially inspired pastiches” [4] doomed to exploit the same tautological plot devices and imagery systematized in Abby Mendelson’s 1982 essay “The 10 Worst Clichés in Pastiche and Scholarship”: the bottomless dispatch-box, the fatuous historical guest, nauseating plot machinations in which “Holmes is the only man who can save the world from destruction – or from yet another inane pastiche” [5].

Considering the above stated, one can name at least two reasons for distinguishing Mitch Cullen’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (2004) from “yet another pastiche” featuring Conan Doyle’s legendary hero. First, it definitely breaks the boundaries of detective fiction by discrediting the key elements of its generic model (unequivocal conclusions reached by clear logical assumptions; axiological bipolarity; homeostatic plot etc) and using detective plotline as an auxiliary generic cliché. Second, it radically transforms Sherlock Holmes’ canonic image by stripping it of its most sustainable and thus easily recognizable features. Instead of sarcastic, sharp-minded, abrupt detective serialized in Sherlockiana, the novel set in 1947 introduces a 93-year-old man experiencing a whole bunch of age-related troubles: distracted attention syndrome, rapid drowsiness, dysbasia, memory lapses etc.

It may seem a striking coincidence that the very same year “A Slight Trick of the Mind” was published, another novel featuring elderly Holmes has come into sight. In Michael Chabon’s “The Final Solition” set in 1944, a long-retired 89-year-old detective fails to solve the mystery of a code recited by a mute Jewish refugee’s parrot. Both novels deal with Holmes’ attempts to adjust to rapidly changing environment; both introduce war-affected children as his companions; both refer to XX century’s largest catastrophes (Holocaust in “The Final Solution”, Hiroshima in “A Slight Trick of the Mind”) thus demonstrating rational mind’s disability in confronting absurd and chaotic world. Yet where Chabon’s narrative generally falls within the definition of detective fiction, Cullin’s stands out as a wise and touching examination of the human condition at the turning point of tragic XX century.

The very structure of the novel reflects a confused state of aging detective’s memory by intertwining three main storylines (Holmes’ trip to Japan; his lonely life in Sussex; his recollections of Mrs. Keller’s case investigated 45 years before) in a nonlinear, fragmentary way. Each of the storylines contains a mystery (the disappearance of a Japanese diplomat; the death of Holmes’ young companion, Roger Munro; Edith Keller’s suicide) impossible to solve by means of logic and ratio and representing a compelling aspect of Holmes’ efforts to accept his own life in the world he doesn’t understand anymore. The more he muses over the tragedies he witnesses – be it a mother mourning her dead child or the whole city of Hiroshima ruined by the bomb, - the more evident it becomes that even though the cause can be identified, the reason why remains obscure and unexplainable.  The only remedy left for aging detective is to concentrate on simple things: “the immutable rooms of his farmhouse, the rituals of his orderly country life, the reliability of his apiary – these things required no vast, let alone meager, amount of recall; they had simply become ingrained during his decades of isolation. Then there were the bees he tended: the world continued to change, as did he, but they persisted nonetheless” [6, p. 25].

When making Holmes move away from Victorian optimism towards more pessimistic vision of life, Mitch Cullin doesn’t step too far from the canon: in fact, Doyle’s hero expressed the very same attitude in "The Retired Colourman”: "[I]s not all life pathetic and futile? ... We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow - misery" [7, 263]. However, by focusing on the character’s transformations under the impact of historically determined context, Cullin deliberately breaks one of the principal generic conventions of Sherlockiana – for, as Sabine Vanacker has argued, Doyle’s Holmes stories are fairly a-historical narratives. While they at times refer to contemporaneous events or anxieties and are ready to exploit aspects of modernity – newspapers, type-writers, telegrams and train-travel – they feel situated in a notional Victorian context that would become increasingly nostalgic as Doyle’s series developed over time. Even the “Valley of Fear”, serialized in 1914–1915, is a story that denies its First World War context: the action takes place in an almost mythological pre-war environment thus reflecting Doyle’s own rejection of the drastically changing world [8, p. 102].

Consequently, canonic Holmes is a character strongly based on Victorianism and designed to appeal to readers by confronting the messy, changeable world they lived in. As Stephen Knight has noted with regard to Holmes’ outstanding popularity,  “to become a best seller like that,  a writer of crime stories has to embody in the detective a set of values which the audience finds convincing” [9]. According to Lehan, Holmes “embodies the system that he comes to protect. He is the man of reason, of science, of technology; he is from the upper class and was educated at Oxford; he eventually becomes rich; and he frequents best city clubs and other haunts of the gentleman” [10, p. 84].

Contrariwise, Mitch Cullin’s “humanized” version of Holmes doesn’t believe in reason anymore, and his affection to technology, if any, is smashed to pieces by Hiroshima disaster. Discomfort is the world determining his interactions with post-WWII world: in his troubled dreams mingled with reality he feels “naked… a brittle skeleton covered by a thin veneer of rice paper. Gone were the vestments of his retirement – the woolens, the tweeds, the reliable clothing he had worn daily since before the Great War, throughout the second Great War, and into his ninety-third year. His flowing hair had been shorn to the scalp, and his beard was reduced to a stubble on his jutting chin and sunken cheeks. The canes that aided his ambling – the very canes placed across his lap inside the library – had vanished as well within his dreaming” [6, p. 16].

This sense of vulnerability is further strengthened every time we face the manifestations of Holmes’ fading memory: “A confused look spread across his pale, bearded face, and that puzzlement that occupied the moments when he sensed the failing of his own memory also threw its shadow over him (what else was forgotten, what else filtered away like sand seeping between clenched fists, and what exactly was known for sure anymore?)” [6, p. 25]. Deprived of his most powerful weapon, the aging detective would constantly betray readers’ expectations, sometimes acquiring almost comic shade: “...Holmes was quiet, seemingly lost in thought; his inward expression as he sat thinking generated an optimistic twinge in Mr. Umezaki. Without a doubt, Holmes was sorting through the vast index of his memory… Soon Holmes's eyes would close (the old detective's ruminating mind, Mr. Umezaki felt certain, was already reaching into that cabinet's darker recesses), and almost imperceptibly, a faint snoring would then be heard” [6, p. 248].

What reasons might have encouraged Cullin to reinterpret Victorian classics in such a non-traditional way? In his own words, it was a traumatic experience of a loss that started him ruminating on the idea of writing “something about the twilight of the detective’s life” [11]. The author treats Sherlock Holmes as a personal metaphor wrapped up in both the loss of his father figures and his childhood. “As my father began struggling with what seemed to be dementia and my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, - he confesses in an interview to Bookmunch, – I began work on “A Slight Trick of the Mind” as a way to explore themes of aging and memory and how the past can ebb away from us in unexpected ways” [11].

At a more general level, tropes of memory loss and unsuccessful father-seeking quests of Cullin’s characters resonate with postmodern concepts of identity/hierarchy crisis. In her profound essay on Alzheimer disease as a cultural metaphor (largely based on Susan Sontag’s seminal paper “Illness as Metaphor”), Linda Simons links loss of recall memory as a “culturally constructed symptom” of senile dementia to the loss of self by stating that “in Northern Europe protestant culture the trait most inextricably connected to one’s sense of identity is cognitive functioning/memory” [12, p. 8]. For Simons, the metaphor of memory loss responds to the fear of identity erosion shared by postmodern consciousness. According to James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium, the notion of a stable, centered, autonomous and self-conscious identity has fallen upon hard times in the world of “instantaneous communication, hyperkinetic consumerism, and electronically mediated imagery. In such a world, the self is everywhere and thus nowhere in particular – fleeting, evanescent, a mere shadow of what it used to be” [13, p. 14].

In terms of larger social groups, Simons suggests, loss of memory is viewed as a threat to cultural integrity: “Losing memory implies losing history, and once a culture forgets its history, it suffers erosions to its identity” [12, p. 7]. With regard to that, one can’t help remembering a peculiar connection between Sherlock Holmes’ drug abuse in “The Sign of Four” and the Indian Mutiny of 1857, first spotted by Christopher Keep and Don Randall [14]: it looks like Mitch Cullin, as well as Conan Doyle himself, parallels the body and health of the detective to the body and health of the Empire. Based on this presumption, we are able to view “A Slight Trick of the Mind” in a broader literary context - as a part of a new wave of adaptations and interpretations of Victorian classics brought forth by rapid outburst of interest in Victorian culture and outlook in the second half of the XX century. Far from being simply nostalgic in their engagement with the past, these post-Victorian (or neo-Victorian) novels, Cora Kaplan suggests, treat Victorian age as a “discourse through which both the conservative and progressive elements of Anglophone cultures reshaped their ideas of the past, present and future” [15, p. 4].

Once established by Conan Doyle as a “powerful, patriarchal hero” [16], in “A Slight Trick of the Mind” Holmes acts as a father figure not only for his young companion Roger (whose father lost his life in WWII), but also to his Japanese pen-friend Umezaki (whose missing father he is supposed – and fails - to recall). The latter, raised in - and spoiled by, as his mother would have put it, - Anglophile tradition (in a Victorian house “looking anomalous in a country of traditional minka dwellings” [6, p. 103]), impersonates the theme of guilty colonial past, identified by Derek Longhurst as one of the cornerstones of Sherlockian canon [17]. In terms of classical Victorian novel, father-seeking motive used to function as a means of character’s self-identification in a complicated system of social and family ties. But what Umezaki actually gets is a kind of soothing simulacrum: since Holmes is unable to recall Mr. Umezaki’s father, he ends up inventing a story of Umezaki seniour’s clandestine service to the Crown in the New Zealand. 

Therefore, by placing Doyle’s a-historical character into historically determined context and transforming him accordingly, Cullin traces the ways Victorian axiology takes to adjust to the post-WWII world, marked as chaotic and illogical environment. While deliberately breaking generic and ontological conventions of crime fiction, he utilizes tropes of memory loss and fatherlessness as powerful metaphors for traumas of identity erosion, cultural disintegration and “colonial guilt”.


1.    Watt P.R., Green J. The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies and Copies. – Burlington, 2003. – 368 p.

2.    Winks R.W. Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. – New York: Prentice Hall, 1980. – 246 p.

3.    Barzun J. The Other Decalogue / Beyond Baker Street: A Sherlockian Anthology. – New York: Bobs-Merrill, 1976. – 364 p.

4.    Lellenberg J. An Editorial Toxin // Prescott Press. – 1979. – №2. – Pp. 186-187

5.    Mendelson A. The 10 Worst Clichés in Pastiche and Scholarship // The Canadian Holmes. – 1982. - №6. – Vol.2. – P. 76

6.    Cullin M. A Slight Trick of the Mind. – New York: Ancor, 2004. – 272 p.

7.    Conan Doyle A. The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. – URL: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100291h.html (accessed 18.01.2021)

8.    Vanacker S. (ed.) Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multimedia Afterlives. – London: Palgrave McMillan, 2012. – 233 p.

9.    Knight S. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. – London, Palgrave McMillan, 1980. – 2020 p.

10. Lehan R.D. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in the Age of Transition. – Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. – 312 p.

11. Wild P. An Interview with Mitch Cullin // Bookmunch. – 2014. - May 28

12. Simon L. Beating the “Invincible Predator”: Alzheimer’s Disease as Metaphor // The Journal of American Culture. – 2014. - №37. – Vol.1. – Pp. 32 - 38

13. Holstein J., Gubrium J. The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity in a Postmodern World. – London: Oxford University Press, 2000. – 288 p.

14. Keep C., Randall D. Addiction, Empire and Narrative in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” // NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. – 1999. - №32. – Vol. 2. – Pp. 54 – 62  

15. Kaplan C. Victoriana: Histories, Fiction, Criticism. – Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2007. – 264 p.

16. Hall J.Y. Ordering the Sensational: Sherlock Holmes and the Female Gothic // Studies in Short Fiction. – 1991. - №28. – Pp. 41 – 56

Longhurst D. Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of an English Gentleman 1887 – 1894 // Gender, Genre and Narrative Pleasure. – London: Routledge, 1989. – Pp. 50 – 66

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