by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
I grew up in a Celtics house. Not that I was ever a huge basketball fan, but if a game played on the radio or the television, then it was a Celtics game. Nonetheless, I developed a great deal of respect for one of the greatest Lakers players who ever lived, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Probably that was due in part to Airplane, but that just showed what a Renaissance man Abdul-Jabbar really is. Professional athlete (one of the best in the game of basketball, in fact), actor, martial artist, historian, and a novelist. How could you not admire a person like that?
Still, I had never read anything Kareem had written. But along came his 2015 novel about Mycroft Holmes (co-written with Anna Waterhouse, a professional screenwriter who worked with Kareem previously on a documentary called On the Shoulders of Giants) and there was finally a confluence of interests. While I never picked up my father’s passion for basketball, I did inherit an interest in mystery fiction and the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in particular. The first time I tried to read anything from the Holmes canon, it was from a large brown complete hardcover edition that my dad owned. I didn’t get very far on my first foray, but it left an impression on me, and as an adult I returned to Doyle and read and enjoyed all of the original short stories and novels. I enjoyed them so much, in fact, that I’ve been reluctant to read any of the many, many additional Holmes stories written by a succession of authors and fans over the years. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s involvement proved the tipping point.
In my recollection, Mycroft Holmes appears in one of Doyle’s stories. He’s Sherlock’s older brother, works at some kind of government post, is a large corpulent man who rarely leaves his club chair, and he’s said to be smarter than Sherlock. There’s a wealth of possible stories there, and filmmakers and authors have done so repeatedly, often managing to include Mycroft in some capacity in Sherlock’s adventures, sort of like how Moriarty, despite never really appearing “on camera” in any of Doyle’s stories, always takes center stage in film adaptations.
Abdul-Jabbar starts at the beginning. Its 1870 and Mycroft is 23 years old (Sherlock is only 16), works as a secretary to the Secretary of the State of War, is madly in love with his fiancé Georgianna, and he’s saving his money to buy a house. Gifted with the same eidetic memory that Sherlock possesses and will put to use as a detective, Mycroft has made himself indispensable to his employer. His closest friend is Cyrus Douglas, a forty year old black tobacconist from Trinidad who secretly owns a shop in London (racial prejudice being somewhat a thing in the 19th century). In one of those coincidences that always seem to occur in novels, Georgianna also originates from Trinidad, albeit from a wealthy family that owns a sugar plantation, and events in Trinidad soon pull all three away from London to the Caribbean.
A number of murders in Trinidad have Douglas concerned, and when Mycroft asks his fiancé if she knows anything about them, she grows pale and informs Mycroft that she has to rush back to the island immediately. Naturally Mycroft follows, dragging Douglas along. What unfolds is less like a Sherlock Holmes adventure and more like a James Bond adventure, understandable given Mycroft’s profession and the exotic locale. There’s intrigue, investigation, murder, double-crosses, bureaucratic-fu, kung-fu, gunplay, and an endless array of colorful characters, not least of which are Huan the cabbie and his son Little Huan, both members of the Sacred Order of the Harmonious Fists.
Douglas plays the Watson to Holmes’ Holmes. It’s a common enough partnership in fiction, perhaps used most effectively by Doyle, but imitated by countless authors across a variety of genres and types of media since. The use of the device is most appropriate here, given the nature of the pastiche. But Douglas is a solid character, even if there’s more than a little authorial insert here (Douglas didn’t study with Bruce Lee, but he knows how to land a roundhouse kick), and it’s always welcome to see some diversity in Victorian fiction. Indeed, for most of the book, Mycroft is the only white guy around. Douglas serves both as someone for the genius to explain things to, but also as the backup and muscle. Like Watson, Douglas always has his revolver with him, in addition to having trained with the Chinese boxing society in Trinidad.
Mycroft is of course the main character and goes through an evolution of sorts throughout the book. He’s a bit of a stuffy bureaucrat at the start of the book, by at the end of his labors he is a capable adventurer, primed for further adventures in service to the crown. There’s a second one out and a third one underway, and I think they’re going to have a place in my to-read pile.