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Chabon's wartime 'Solution' is murder most bland

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, 131 pp., illustrated, $16.95

Compare this pair of opening sentences:

''One Saturday in that last, interminable summer before his parents separated and the Washington Senators baseball team was expunged forever from the face of the earth, the Shapiros went to Nags Head, North Carolina, where Nathan, without planning to, perpetuated a great hoax."

''A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks."

The first opens Michael Chabon's short story ''The Little Knife," published in 1988 and included in his first collection, ''A Model World and Other Stories." The second, written nearly 16 years later, greets the reader of ''The Final Solution," his most recent, novella-length fiction, which was published originally in The Paris Review in 2003.

In breadth, concision, and sheer rhetorical ambition, Chabon's writing has clearly evolved from an early, eager style, flush with enterprise and the tingly stir of a newfound gift revealing itself to its possessor. What we read now is a manner economical in its use of adjectives, taut in its declarative rhythms, and much less acrobatic in aural texture. Early Chabon can be a bliss to hear; our new Chabon will have to depend on plot to see him -- and us -- through.

One might gather, from the outward facts of this book-length story, that Chabon is interested in saying something about the Holocaust: Its place is England in the 1930s and '40s, and central to the telling of ''The Final Solution" is a 9-year-old Jewish refugee, Linus Steinman, a native Berliner and apparent mute whose sole companion is Bruno, an African gray parrot. Bruno speaks, among other things, long strings of German numerals, said to be the key to the cipher used by the German Navy. When Bruno is abducted, and Linus finds himself alone in England, bereft of companionship, the reader senses Chabon has gathered the workings of an intriguing, perhaps fresh, fable -- something nearly allegorical in meaning but unmistakable in its gesture.

Yet by the end of this tale, the reader understands that nothing so grand has been risked. Instead, Chabon has given us a blandish kind of mystery tale, with no clear audience, no discernible necessity, and so only a modestly satisfying conclusion.

Always one for a wry, often ironic opening, Chabon begins by presenting the boy and an aged former inspector named the ''old man" throughout. Linus appears to him on a railway track, bird in tow. Advancing one chapter, we learn that Linus lodges with the Panickers. Mr. Panicker, a well-educated ''Malayalee" Anglican vicar, presides over a lunch table that includes at least two men who will later become suspects in the central crime of ''The Final Solution": his son, Reggie, a surly, foul-mouthed, and ill-behaved young man, and a Mr. Parkins, a new lodger who has a secret and abiding interest in Bruno and his enigmatic numerical beak spatterings.

When a new lodger, Mr. Shane, is found murdered, the old man is reluctantly drawn away from his habitual beekeeping and toward the mystery of Shane's death. Routine dead-ends are pursued, and a few pale red herrings are thrown in. It is enough to say that neither of the two suspects is found guilty, and that, yes, its instigation has everything to do with secret agents and German codes. In what may count as the book's sole epiphany, the old man, while musing about the significance of Bruno's muttered numbers, doubts that ''we shall ever learn what significance, if any, those numbers may hold." Yet ''the application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings -- the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted -- had he not? -- by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies' wings."

It is ambitious in quite another sense to suggest that the Holocaust was something like ''Cold Case Files," just one of those knotty, tragic circumstances in life about which little can be done. And Chabon's semi-philosophical musings here are inadequate to the facts of his own book: Everything in ''The Final Solution" is wrapped up neatly and unthrillingly in the end, and there are really no accounts left outstanding.

In recent years, Chabon has gravitated toward the comic book as an object of special affection, if not outright aspiration: ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which took years to write and research, told the story of a pair of European exiles who become comic book authors, ''Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist" fully transmuted his fiction into a numb glide through a comic book, and he is officially noted as the coauthor of the screen story of ''Spider-Man 2." Just as it is fruitless for newspapers to aspire to the condition of television, and for television to aspire to the station of movies, the genre of the comic book is an anemic vein for novelists to mine, lest they squander their brilliance.

Kurt Jensen's reviews appear in several publications nationally. He is working on a nonfiction manuscript, ''The Children of Job: On Suffering."

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