If you thought you read the title and author of this book incorrectly, did a double-take, and went back to read it again, you’re not alone. Yes, it’s a story about Sherlock Homes’ older (and some may say smarter) brother. And yes, it is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of NBA fame.
What you cannot know from just reading the title is this: Abdul-Jabbar has been a huge Holmes fan since his early days in basketball. Surprisingly, he credits reading the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with making him a better basketball player, allowing him to use the power of observation, just like Sherlock Holmes, to “enhance [his] own game and exploit weaknesses in [his] opponents.”
He has also worked with the other author of this book before, Anna Waterhouse. Together they wrote and produced the feature-length, award-winning documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. This fictional novel is a step in a new direction for both.
Okay, so enough with the background. Can this book, despite the cache the author may carry with him, stand on its own in the ever-growing, seemingly non-stop publication of all things Holmes-related? To that, I can answer a definitive yes.
The novel itself is enjoyable on a few different levels: for one, the story takes us back to meet a younger, less-jaded pair of Holmes brothers—Sherlock is still in college, and Mycroft is working his way up the ranks in the Secretary of State’s office. We briefly get to see the dysfunctional relationship between this pair of misfit brothers, Mycroft obviously the more focused, while young Sherlock struggles with who or what he is to become.
We barely spend much time with Sherlock, but that’s okay. The story introduces Mycroft’s best friend and confidante, Cyrus Douglas, who, though a man of color, has managed to start a (very successful) tobacco shop in London, importing rare tobacco from all over the world. The book doesn’t shy away from the hard facts, and as you can imagine, being a black man in London in the 1860s, things are never easy for Cyrus. He constantly has to act like a servant, even when spending time with his friend, the apparently open-minded and liberal Mycroft Holmes. One great passage that sums this experience up is as follows:
Douglas counted. Fewer than fifty were present. Nevertheless, that meant one hundred eyes, all critical of a tall, somber black man in his middle years, who—though he might be staring humbly at the floor—seemed too self-possessed to be a servant. Especially since he stood next to a young man of no more than three-and-twenty…
The real story starts when Mycroft and Cyrus Douglas get wind of an odd thing happening in Cyrus’ homeland, Trinidad. Children are being murdered along a beach on the coast of the island. When Mycroft’s young and beautiful fiancée leaves abruptly to go back to Trinidad (where her family has a vast plantation), Mycroft cannot stop himself from following her, and Cyrus goes as well, since the children who are dying just happen to be from his village.
From there on, the story reads quickly, and becomes quite a page-turner towards the end. The attention to detail and the historical facts are all extremely interesting, and the plot, if at some times far-fetched, is still an enjoyable read. This book confronts the unhappy truth: the damage slavery has done to the United States and surrounding countries, in the direct aftermath of the Civil War (or, as it was then known, the War Between the States), is a huge part of the overall story. The over-arching story of the friendship between these two characters, however, is something very much to be enjoyed.
Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse is available in stores today. Pick up your copy at the link below.