This is no celebrity vanity project, but a well-researched, rollicking historical mystery.
In my Justice League book tag, I mentioned the leaps and bounds that Mycroft Holmes takes in escaping its slow start. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a self-confessed Sherlock Holmes nut. It’s clear he treated this story about Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft seriously, with meticulous nods to Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s original work and to period details. This book could have degenerated into an Easter Egg hunt, but instead, Adbul-Jabbar and writing partner Anna Waterhouse took chances with their creativity. What could have been lazy tribute went to places far beyond Conan Doyle’s own imagining. And it’s all packaged in an engaging mystery read.
Oh yeah, and the over/under on basketball references in this review is 1.5.
Historical Setting: 1870 London and Trinidad
Historical Events Covered: The 1870 annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge’s rowing teams
Timely Dialogue: “My kidsman’ll tell ya, I h’aint no duffer, I’s a proper wirer!”
Whew! Quite a collection of terms there. Thankfully, these are more or less explained in the book, but for a bit more detail, there is a great page on Victorian slang.
kidsman: organizer of child thieves, much like Fagan in Oliver Twist
duffer: a fence for stolen goods
fine wirer: a highly skilled pickpocket
The Best Thing I Learned: The Merikens were descendants of former slaves that fought as marines for the British in the War of 1812 and settled in Trinidad afterward. Villages were founded and settled along the lines of the original marine companies.
Which Historical Personality Is This Book? Bill Russell. Sorry, I just had to do a basketball reference, didn’t I? But rather than going with the obvious, I’m picking another Hall of Fame basketballer. When Russell made the transition to coaching, he stumbled out the gate and skeptics were ready to pounce. But he soon proved critics wrong, and proved a winner, not only in NBA championships, but in breaking down racial barriers.
The world of Sherlock Holmes has been well-mined territory over the last century for authors looking to expand on Conan-Doyle’s creation. While most imagine new adventures for Sherlock and his sidekick Watson, many have focused on Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft. In the original stories, Mycroft Holmes is a memorable character, one that Sherlock admits is smarter than him. However, given relatively little to do on the page, Mycroft has been a tantalizing target for reimagining. It’s that sort of impetus that made him a major character in the Sherlock TV series. The same temptation feeds this novel.
Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse start with Mycroft as a 23-year-old civil servant. He is engaged to Georgiana, an unfortunately rather thinly characterized beauty. MyThis Mycroft Holmes shows his emotions and is somewhat irrational around Georgiana. He is not yet the eccentric, sedentary resident of the Diogenes Club described by Conan-Doyle. Mycroft’s best friend is tobacco importer Cyrus Douglas. A native of Trinidad, Douglas is forced to pretend to his customers that the white clerks at his business are actually the owners. Douglas is keenly aware of the disadvantages of being black in Victorian England. This is our first hint that this novel will have a very different and refreshing take on Holmesian mystery, and indeed, Victorian historical fiction.
When a spate of child murders are reported in Trinidad, allegedly at the hands of a lougarou, a sort of werewolf, Georgiana, also a native of Trinidad, mysteriously drops everything and sails back to her family plantation on that Caribbean island. Holmes, hurt by Georgiana’s sudden departure, and Douglas, worried for the people of his homeland, follow her to investigate. What the pair encounter is a mystery that pits them against thieves and poisoners on the high seas and drops them into the diverse and restive society of colonial Trinidad. The more they find out, the more a devious and ruthless enemy will try to stop them.
It’s in the Trinidadian setting that the story truly shines. The novel describes well the often turbulent mix of white plantation owners, Merikens, Chinese secret societies, East Indian immigrants and indigenous Amerindians. I found myself learning not only about Trinidad’s history, but about the diverse contributions of so many cultures to that part of the world. None of it was patronizing or exoticizing and the ethnicity and background of the many characters were integral to the plot. It all works mostly due to Cyrus Douglas.
Mycroft and Cyrus are a great partnership. Unlike Sherlock and Watson, I got the sense that they are equals. Cyrus is not just a moral conscience, he is a co-investigator, Mycroft’s guide to Trinidad and a critical player in the final confrontation. There is a Mary Sue-ish quality to Cyrus, but Abdul-Jabbar uses that to fill him with the same thoughtfulness and empathy he possesses.
- Brings a welcome injection of social awareness into Holmes’s world
- Well researched without being slavish to the original material
- Draws a vivid portrait of life in colonial Trinidad
- Strong partnership between Mycroft Holmes and Cyrus Douglas
- A slow start that spends several chapters on insignificant events.
- I wasn’t totally sold on Mycroft’s infatuation with Georgiana, or her own motivations
- The supporting characters aren’t given much depth or complexity
When I finished this novel, I definitely wanted to read more about Mycroft and Cyrus’s adventures. I’m glad at least there’s a Mycroft Holmes graphic novel sequel that is out there to read. For a debut mystery, Mycroft Holmes was an engaging and enjoyable read that was delivered with all the finesse of a skyhook.
That’s two. Should have bet the over.
★★★★ (of out 5)