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Book Reviews

Mycroft Holmes

Book Review

by Lauren Alise Schultz

I admit that I picked up Mycroft Holmes out of sheer curiosity to see what kind of mystery novel basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had written. I was more than a little incredulous. Could the record-setting six-time NBA MVP really be a decent author as well? But as I was starting the novel, I googled Abdul-Jabbar and skimmed his Wikipedia page, which further piqued my interest. Prior to publishing his three-volume Mycroft Holmes novels, Abdul-Jabbar was already an established actor, author, cultural critic, and activist. Beginning with his autobiography in 1983, he published several works of nonfiction. Having studied history at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar wrote two other books in the 1980s focused on African American history. He also wrote a regular column for Time magazine from 2014-16 and currently remains a regular contributor to public conversations on race, religion, and public health in national publications and on television. Moreover, he has been appointed to several government positions: he served as a cultural ambassador for the United States under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition; and he was appointed to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin in 2017. All of this information painted a very different picture in my mind from what I had originally thought – that a retired basketball player had impulsively decided to try his hand at writing a Sherlock Holmes tale.

Of course, I don’t know how and how much Abdul-Jabbar’s co-author Anna Waterhouse contributed to the composition of the novel, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of both the mystery plot and the writing in Mycroft Holmes. It is much more than just a run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes knock-off.

Mycroft Holmes is a prequel to the Sherlock Holmes world as we generally know it, focusing on Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft early in his career as a government official and setting the stage for what we know about the character in later stories. His younger brother Sherlock also appears in a cameo but plays no role in solving the case. The novel includes the elements of a twisty mystery traditionally found in the Sherlock Holmes tales, but adds a lot more fist-fighting as Mycroft and his friend Cyrus Douglas go about solving the case. A long sea voyage includes poisoning and plenty of violence, pickpockets and drug dens become part of the tale when the two arrive in Trinidad, and Galing guns make an appearance. Best of all, there is a secret society of Chinese Trinidadian martial artists called the Brotherhood of the Harmonious Fist, who turn out to be both formidable and hilarious. As a fan of the Hardy Boys, I enjoyed this infusion of action into the more cerebral elements of the traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Significantly, Mycroft Holmes also illuminates the lives of Black people in Britain in the late 1800s, once the British empire had outlawed the practice of slavery but prejudice still governed societal practices. The novel also depicts the evils of slavery as it existed in other parts of the world at that time. Mycroft Holmes is extremely well-researched and contains a lot of details about things as wide-ranging as Trinidadian culture and folklore, the history of the Merikins (African American Marines who fought for the British in the War of 1812), and the tobacco importation business in London. Central to the overall project of the novel to introduce the history of Africans in Europe to the world of Sherlock Holmes, Abdul-Jabbar chose to feature a Black man as his second main character – a Watson for the elder Holmes. Mycroft’s best friend is Cyrus Douglas, a businessman of African descent who was born in Trinidad and now owns Holmes’ favorite tobacconist shop in London. In fact, the mystery itself starts with and centers on the shocking murders of children in the Trinidadian village where Cyrus grew up and his family still resides. One of the strongest elements of the novel is the friendship between Holmes and Douglas, the strength of which is first illustrated when Cyrus convinces Mycroft to join him in returning to his village in Trinidad, a no small commitment of time for the young government employee who is trying to work his way up through the ranks.

While all of these elements are executed extremely well in the novel, I had a difficult time deciding how I feel about Mycroft Holmes as an addition to the world of Sherlock Holmes. As I was first reading the book, part of me felt like I would have preferred the book to stand on its own. Couldn’t Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse simply have given their characters different names and left out Sherlock’s cameo? The plot, the characters, and the quality of the writing are truly strong enough to be successful independent of the Holmes mantle. But by the end of Mycroft Holmes, I grew to really appreciate the elements that it adds to the world of Sherlock Holmes as a prequel. The novel sets up a backstory for Mycroft that deepens his character in the later stories and I now see Abdul-Jabbar’s novels as an interesting and even indispensable contribution to Conan Doyle’s world.

Mycroft Holmes
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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