Those notoriously romanticized accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations — the work of the facile Dr. John H. Watson — scarcely mention the detective’s older brother, Mycroft. Ostensibly an unremarkable London bureaucrat, Mycroft is unmarried, slightly overweight, sedentary and rather fussily set in his ways, passing most of his evenings at the ultra-quiet Diogenes Club. Nonetheless, just as James Moriarty, an obviously harmless professor of mathematics, is actually a ruthless criminal mastermind, so Mycroft Holmes turns out to be rather more than a minor government clerk. In fact, as Sherlock explains, in many instances his brother is the British government. “He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. . . . All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.”
Little wonder, then, that Mycroft has fascinated readers for generations. Recently, the basketball legend-turned-author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his writing partner, Anna Waterhouse, have been creating a new backstory for this inscrutable human computer. In “Mycroft Holmes” (2015) they described his youth, a serious love affair and deadly adventures in Trinidad undertaken with his closest friend, the black former sailor Cyrus Douglas.
“Mycroft and Sherlock” picks up the story two years later, in 1872. A still emotionally vulnerable Mycroft is working as an adviser to the Secretary of State for War, while the compassionate Douglas has established a school and apprenticeship program for London’s homeless boys. On a visit to that school, Mycroft brings along a rather sullen undergraduate from Cambridge’s Downing College. An intense young man, the not quite 19-year-old Sherlock is arrogant, stubborn, argumentative and almost bloodthirsty in his taste for newspaper accounts of the latest crimes and atrocities. Recently these have included a series of grotesque murders in which the victims — most of them Chinese — have been mutilated and their bodies chopped into quarters.AD AD
While talking with two of Douglas’s newest pupils, Sherlock notices that the elder shows hypodermic needle marks on various parts of his body. Shortly thereafter, the boy unexpectedly disappears. Douglas and Mycroft are naturally upset and concerned about the welfare of this apparent runaway. Sherlock, however, senses that something deeper and far more disturbing is going on.
As the novel progresses, we see Mycroft acting as Queen Victoria’s fixer, then growing infatuated with an elegantly beautiful Chinese woman, while Douglas — the most cultivated of men — periodically confronts Victorian racism, since he must pretend to be merely the servant of his school’s imaginary white benefactor. Meanwhile, Sherlock can’t resist the visceral allure of sleuthing and goes undercover to learn the missing boy’s secrets.
Written in the third person, “Mycroft and Sherlock” never aims to emulate the familiar
storytelling voice of Dr. Watson, but does employ a slightly formal, mildly archaic diction, while reserving stylistic fireworks for its minor characters. These include Cockney shop owners, a faded aristocrat (an Anglo-French version of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”), several educated and uneducated Chinese people, the historical Dr. Joseph Bell, various street urchins and, not least, the repulsive Mr. Beeton, head of a chimney-sweeping empire who insists that he gives jobs to boys and girls “out of the kindness of me ’eart.” Still, he explains, accidents do happen:AD AD
“Wot you ’ave to know about chimney flues,” he was declaring, “is that flues ’as several twists in ’em, cuz they’s attached to uvver flues wot shares one openin’. An’ they shares that openin’, he continued, ‘cuz of taxes. That’s right, gents, less ’oles equals less taxes! Now, it’s pitch dark in there, an ’ard to navigate. Sometimes a sweep, he’ll misremember which ’ole he shimmied up, makes a bad turn, scrambles back down anuvver flue where they’s a fire burnin’ an’ poof! Up in smoke ’e goes! Issat my fault I ask? Can I ’elp it, if once in a while, I lose one or two to the fire?”
How well does “Mycroft and Holmes” stand up as a mystery? On the plus side, it moves along briskly, and the reader’s interest never flags. An inexplicable shipwreck, a sinister opium den called The Water Monkey, the discovery of Chinese symbols gouged on benches at various stations of the Underground, and several eerily life-like dolls — all contribute to an air of cozy menace. What’s more, the themes of widespread drug addiction and impending economic disaster are meant to strike a contemporary nerve, while casual allusions to Baker Street and a Mrs. Hudson come with an authorial wink. Above all, the book deepens and complicates Mycroft’s character, as well as establishing the reason he will eventually resign himself to becoming the government’s lonely chief of intelligence.
Enjoyable as the book is, a purist will nonetheless fault its loose construction. Mycroft’s journey to Scotland, for example, contributes nothing to the plot. For no compelling reason, the Holmes brothers keep vital facts from each other. At one point, a dead body is removed from one room and propped up in another without any purpose that I could see. While the identity of the novel’s ultimate villain comes as no surprise, the inciting cause for that person’s actions is withheld for too long a time. On the linguistic level, a modern phrase sometimes breaks the narrative spell, as when Douglas says, “I believe that ship has sailed,” while nobody has ever referred to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as “Dante Alighieri’s Trilogy.”AD AD
Still, readers shouldn’t be overly captious about this diverting, light entertainment. It’s always fun to see one Holmes brother or the other dazzle with a showy deduction and “Mycroft and Sherlock” offers plenty of these. One can only hope, then, for further Victorian-era adventures from Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse, possibly with — be still my beating heart! — a cameo appearance by the young Professor Moriarty.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style. He is the author of the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle.”
MYCROFT AND SHERLOCK
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
Titan Books. 355 pp. $25.99
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