Literary Liaisons, On the Shelf

On The Shelf- Mycroft Holmes

Since his invention by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has dominated the public square. Whether the medium be the printed page, the stage, radio, or screens large and small; not a year goes by without some new iteration of the world’s most famous detective entering the canon. With such an endless stream of adaptations and reinterpretations, it comes as a pleasant surprise when something comes along to pique my interest. I hope you feel the same way because in this edition of On the Shelf I discuss a rather inventive take on the Sherlock Holmes legend, Mycroft Holmes.

Yes, you read that correctly, Mycroft Holmes, as in Sherlock’s older brother. In what is ostensibly a prequel of sorts, Sherlock is reduced to a supporting role while his brother is forced to unravel a troubling mystery brewing in the Caribbean. This unique take on the Holmes boys is presented by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. You might recognize one of those names as an NBA Hall of Famer and think to yourself “Why is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time writing a book about Sherlock Holmes’ brother?”. It’s a good question, but don’t make the mistake of Pidgeon-holing Kareem. He is a man of many talents. Mr. Jabbar has written numerous bestsellers and is a regular contributor to TIME magazine. His stuff is good, very good. Which is why I was intrigued when I saw his name attached to this project. I can tell you that I was not disappointed.

All of the classic traits of a Holmesian mystery are still present; the deductions, the action, the clever dénouement, even a sidekick/best friend with whom to investigate. But by making Mycroft the lead investigator of their tale, Jabbar and Waterhouse open up a myriad of new possibilities. Sherlock is an outsider, but Mycroft is the consummate bureaucrat. An outsider can disrupt without fear of consequence, can poke the bear and see what shakes loose. An insider must answer all the same questions without ruffling any of the feathers. Mycroft is constrained by the law and the will of his superiors. Basically, office politics. It makes any investigation harder for our hero, but the added stakes of trying to keep his job and avoid an international incident add conflict and tension to the mystery.

               The novel also benefits from twenty-first-century hindsight. While Doyle occasionally worked in a societal critique or two, on the whole, his Holmes stories were contemporary mysteries subject to many of the problematic views on women, people of color, and the poor that permeated the time in which they were written. Jabbar and Waterhouse, being a person of color and a woman respectively, layer in a historical perspective that makes Mycroft’s approach to life feel more subversive than his brother’s. This Holmes does not shy away from the harsh reality of the slave trade or the limits of a woman’s societal mobility and the characters are all the better for it. That’s not to say that the book gets bogged down in judgment or historical deconstruction, but it does make for a more complex world, and complexity is always welcome in a mystery.

               Perhaps the most dramatic change in this novel from its forbearers is the change in narration. Where faithful Watson served as the point-of-view character in Doyle’s work, allowing Sherlock to remain aloof and his thought process mysterious, here we see things from Mycroft’s point-of-view. While it does destroy the illusion of unflappable genius and undercuts the grand dénouement a bit, the trade-off is a more relatable protagonist and a chance for the reader to solve the mystery themselves. It might be a personal preference but I find that last bit to be of particular importance. Too often mysteries rely on a piece of information that was not properly presented to the reader or worse was not mentioned at all. In these cases, the reveal can feel unsatisfactory, ruining the whole experience. But when you are in the detective’s head, seeing their thought process, it creates a sense that you too can solve the case which makes for a much more engaging read.  

               All in all, Mycroft Holmes is an engaging, inventive take on a well-worn classic. The characters, the mystery, the world feel brand-new through these new eyes but all of the classic elements of the Holmesian detective series remain, timeless as ever. This is a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelf and I look forward to reading all of the follow-up adventures that are sure to follow.

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