Book Review: Mycroft Holmes
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
Titan Books, 2015
Ever since his first appearance in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” Mycroft Holmes, the smarter but less active older brother of Sherlock Holmes, has fascinated Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers. Mycroft, Sherlock tells an astonished Watson, has even greater mental powers than Sherlock himself possesses (“his specialism is omniscience,” we’re told), but he lacks the avenger’s sense of urgency, the sleuth’s willingness to chase a suspect through the fog-bound streets or throw himself prone upon a carpet to examine a blood stain under a magnifying glass. Instead, Mycroft confines himself to a steady track between his lodgings, his gentleman’s club (the Diogenes, which he helped to found), and his job in the British government – a job that’s hinted to be uniquely all-encompassing behind the scenes. The impression made by his very brief bits in the Holmes canon is of stolid unchangeability; Mycroft doesn’t don disguises; Mycroft doesn’t fake his own death; indeed, Mycroft doesn’t do much of anything.
This has proven irresistible to the writers of Holmes pastiche fiction, naturally. Mycroft has by now had enough books and stories written about him to fill a small library, and those stories, more than any other slice of Holmesiana, make a very strong case for imposing some kind of moratorium on the whole flourishing sub-fauna species of pastiche fiction itself. These books and stories are so infernally boring, you see. They all feature a younger Mycroft who’s a paragon of intensity and activity, charging from one adventure to another in open defiance of Doyle’s portrayal of his later self. They all tell their separate stories of the thing, the something that happened to Mycroft to make him the huge, impassive figure we meet in “The Greek Interpreter.” Despite the central role that individual character plays in virtually all the great Doyle Holmes stories, character is absolutely never allowed to be the reason Mycroft prefers a comfy chair in his club’s library to the chilly mists of Dartmoor or a nighttime river chase on the Thames with poisoned darts whizzing through the air. Mycroft’s life as Doyle describes it – a comfortable private life and an all-consuming government job – is of no interest whatsoever to pastichers; they ignore it completely in favor of chucking up, year after year, decade after decade, second-rate Sherlock-style adventures and foisting them on a younger Mycroft.
It can make the prospect of reading another such pastiche a bit preemptively wearying, and so one of the latest high-profile examples, Mycroft Holmes, written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Watterhouse and new from Titan Books, induces at least as much resignation as excitement. Here we have the old familiar story: a young Mycroft, recently graduated from college, strapping and active, employed as a secretary for the Secretary of State for War and thus well-launched for a governmental career. He’s affianced to a young woman named Georgiana, “the prettiest, most intelligent, kindest woman in the world,” and he’s a mentor to his reedy young brother Sherlock, and he has the social unconventionality to have a black man, London tobacconist Cyrus Douglas, as his best friend. His stipend is ample, his prospects are bright, the snail is on the thorn, God’s in His heaven.
Thankfully, Mycroft Holmes isn’t quite as complacent as that. Mycroft and Cyrus are fleeing from a crowd of whip-wielding London racists before you’ve hardly got the book out of its mailing package, and on top of that, there’s trouble in Trinidad. In the land of Cyrus’s birth (and the location of the plantation of Georgiana’s family, as it happens), dozens of children are disappearing, and the bodies of some are being found with all the blood drained from them. Locals are naturally rumoring the work of an indigenous supernatural vampire-insect called the lougarou and its spirit-henchmen, but whatever the cause, both Cyrus and Georgiana feel compelled to take ship back home and investigate. This upsets Mycroft, naturally, but luckily he has a compliant boss who’s already become dependent on his peculiar skills:
As the Secretary of State for War, [Edward] Cardwell had for the better part of a year relied on his man Mycroft Holmes to bring in the morning’s reports and to pinpoint the world’s trouble spots with the deadly accuracy of a champion archer. And young Holmes, with his strange, steel-gray eyes and that shock of dark blond hair, was usually as punctual as the great clock of Westminster itself.
It’s the work of a moment for Mycroft to finagle an official trip to Trinidad, and soon the book’s foreign adventures are afoot. Our authors pack these adventures with plot twists and danger and hairsbreadth escapes – on a purely functional level, Mycroft Holmes is consistently gripping, although the preponderance of action-sequences tends to crowd out the superior brain power that is, after all, the main thing separating Mycroft from any of two dozen other Victorian superheroes. For long stretches of this not-very-long book, the main character could be any young London bravo with a weighted walking stick.
Since the primary goal of pastiche fiction is comfort, the plot’s resolution is intensely predictable, however many boat-chases and gun-battles are required to reach it. The plot in books like this is almost beside the point, since we know it can’t effect any serious changes in the shape of what we already know to be the future of these characters. Cyrus may come close to death, but Mycroft himself cannot possibly die, or be maimed, or be changed in any way other than becoming the figure we’ve already met in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” (since that figure is most certainly a bachelor, you can start making out your sympathy cards for poor Georgiana on Page 1). We don’t come to pastiche fiction for any of those things – we come to it for pings, for glances at the stuff we already know. So it’s a bit alarming at times to find the allusions in Mycroft Holmes sometimes going astray, as when Mycroft muses on the nature of his younger brother:
Holmes had embarked upon a civil career because he wanted to be of service to Queen and country, whereas Sherlock had no such notions. He was, Holmes thought with aggrieved affection, one of the most singularly self-centered individuals anyone could ever meet. And while Holmes had been a Queen’s Scholar and was popular with fellow students, Sherlock had few friends – perhaps none at all.
The point of such a passage is surely to set up – to ping – the fact that one day in the future, Sherlock will form one of the most famous friendships in literary history, but any aficionado will spot instantly the flaws in even so short a segment – namely, that we know from the canonical stories that Sherlock Holmes was neither friendless in his youth nor a stranger to the idea of service to Queen and country.
Our authors leave events at the end of Mycroft Holmes open to sequels, and the smart bet would be that many such sequels will appear. There’s nothing in this book to make that an especially exciting prospect, but tide of pastiche fiction rolls on just the same.