Monday, May 9, 2016

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

Would make a better movie than a book
Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories will be familiar with the detective’s elder, smarter brother Mycroft, who first appeared in the 1893 case “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter.” Though it’s taken over a century, big brother’s finally got his own book. Mycroft Holmes, published in 2015, is the latest novel by retired basketball star and Renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with help from screenwriter Anna Waterhouse.

This novel is a prequel to Conan Doyle’s tales, as it takes place when Sherlock is a college student. Mycroft is a 23-year-old secretary to England’s Secretary of War. Though he shares his brother’s powers of deduction, Mycroft has a much less fiery temperament and looks forward to a respectable life of wedded bliss, a diplomat’s income, and a country estate. The two great loves of his life are his fiancée Georgiana and a good cigar. Given the latter proclivity, it’s only natural that his best friend should be his tobacco dealer, Cyrus Douglas, a black man from Trinidad. Coincidentally, Georgiana also hails from Trinidad, where her family runs a sugar plantation. Reports arrive of children being murdered on the island, in a grisly manner that leads the superstitious locals to suspect folkloric demons are responsible. Concerned for their homes and families, Georgiana and Douglas book passage on a ship to the Caribbean, with Mycroft accompanying to support his two closest companions and provide investigative assistance.

Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse have done their historical research and have well stocked the setting with period detail. The prose does not attempt to reproduce Conan Doyle’s style, but rather employs a more modern cinema-influenced voice. Still, the authors do a good job of thinking in a Victorian mindset, keeping the reader involved in the story’s time and place. Douglas’s African descent gives the authors the opportunity to deliberately explore the racial attitudes of the time. Black and White are not the only races represented in the multicultural cast. At times the political correctness feels anachronistic. The story might have been more interesting if Mycroft had some prejudices to overcome, rather than entering the story with an enlightened 21st-century liberal outlook.

In a typical Holmes adventure, the mystery is established very early in the narrative, and the detective spends the rest of the book solving it. Here, half the book has gone by before Mycroft and Douglas realize what their mission is. The cover art is a spoiler, revealing the crime that’s being perpetrated to the reader, but Mycroft and Douglas don’t figure it out until two-thirds of the way through the book. One could charitably argue that this delay allows for more character development. The book’s strength is its two lead characters and the friendship between them. The plot, however, is rather plodding and gets less interesting as it goes along. In the end, the mystery is resolved through a combination of unrealistic action sequences and boring bureaucracy.

This book definitely seems to have been written with a movie deal in mind. It includes martial arts sequences, explosions, and a chase on horseback through the streets of old London, all described in shot-by-shot visual detail. It’s as if it’s been calculated to tap into the Robert Downey Jr.-as-Sherlock audience, rather than the Benedict Cumberbatch set. Idris Elba is a shoo-in to play Douglas, while some up-and-coming blonde Brit will be cast as Mycroft. It might actually make a very entertaining movie, but as a mystery novel, it’s just so-so.
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