Authors: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: August 2016
I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.
The brother of Sherlock Holmes gets his literary due here. It’s best to put the Mycroft from the show Sherlock out of your head, as the one in this book is a younger, stronger figure. Confusingly, he’s referred to as “Holmes” throughout (and Sherlock is referred to as “Sherlock”) which is a poor choice—why not call him Mycroft? It’s such a cool name, plus “Holmes” is forever branded to the main brother. Whatever.
Mycroft is a rather successful government employee who is friends with Douglas, a black man from Port of Spain, Trinidad. When rumors are stirred up of people going missing in Douglas’s home city, Mycroft travels with him as a representative of the Secretary of State for War, with Douglas as his assistant (who must sometimes appear as his servant to the suspicious eyes of other citizens and passengers). They are also on the trail of the mysterious Georgiana, Mycroft’s girlfriend who runs away urgently ahead of them to the same destination, but without explanation.
The story is cohesive and fun, with a lot of time spent on the ship between the countries and then in the larger drama that ends up being about slavery. The old standard is that historical fiction says more about the year it was written than the year it purports to be about, and to that end it’s clear that the authors wanted to wade into some heavy territory. It also feels like they did their research, though as a common reader I can’t be certain of the veracity of the historical tidbits.
As a character, Mycroft is a somewhat more level-headed version of Sherlock, and almost as smart as him. Sherlock is described as “one of the most singularly self-centered individuals anyone could ever meet” and mocks his brother for his tendency to “look at social inequities not as curiosities to be catalogued, but as wrongs to be righted.” Mycroft is easier to cheer for because he’s more human and idealistic, and is often as confounded by his brother’s characteristics as a reader of classic Sherlock stories might also be. (Mycroft also has a fine taste in cigars and tobacco, but a disapproval of the meerschaum pipes that are coming into fashion.)
The writing suffices for the purpose and the period, with amusing lines like describing the characters running with “a pace that threatened to send them both tumbling arse over turkey.” I’m curious about the quantity, or angles and aspects, contributed by both Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse, though I imagine it was quite the mixed effort. The sense of place in both London and Trinidad is probably the best success, as well as the glimpse into the mind of an ambitious, cocky young man too smart for his own good: “Know this, Douglas—I believe fervently in an afterlife, and I am not afraid to die. Nevertheless, I find great confidence in facts, in the rational mind—most particularly in my rational mind.” As in other Sherlock stories, Mycroft is at the intersection of history and modernity, superstition and rationalism, and we get to see how he unravels it all.
Cover art corner: This book feels good. It’s got that ultra-smooth texture, and the linked chains are raised so you can run your finger along the pattern. The chains evoke the slavery issue, obviously, but also add a touch of the mystery and intellectualism of Harry Houdini. The curl into a skull at the top is a great touch.