Three years ago, when The Invisible Event was but a callow youth, I happened upon a Sherlock Holmes-universe novel co-written by someone who shared their name with NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Wow,” I thought, “that guy must hear the same thing all the time…” — and then it turned out that it actually was NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, well, I became even more interested.
That novel — Mycroft Holmes (2015) — concerned the elder Holmes brother in his younger days, a man approaching his middle-20s involved in matters of State, and, after a London-set opening salvo, widened his sphere of activity in an adventure-style jaunt to Trinidad and surrounds. At the time, and having read a number of Holmes pastiches before and since I stand by this assessment, I was struck by the confidence with which Abdul-Jabbar and his co-writer Anna Waterhouse sloughed off the century-plus of Holmesian expectations to offer something that felt genuinely new in a field previously assumed well-ploughed. There was no awkward foreshadowing, no painfully cloth-eared dialogue dumps simultaneously condescending the reader while imagining themselves oh-so-clever in how they hinted at the more familiar aspects of the Holmes canon, and as essentially a prequel to the official biography of the Holmes brothers we were saved the scraping, kow-towing references to Irene Adler, the Irregulars, Moriarty, and other elements easily gleaned from Wikipedia by which an author may appear well-versed in a beloved property (“If you want to really impress them, mention the Giant Rat of Sumatra!”).
Instead, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse were obviously very well-steeped in Sherlockian lore. They had a clear character in mind, one who could go on to become that permanent denizen of the Diogenes Club, but who was able to operate in a world unaware of his future. Their Mycroft Holmes was an intelligent man, exasperated with his younger brother (who made but a fleeting appearance), whose world felt realised and tangible, and who was granted agency enough to exist in and respond to this milieu without being too bent, too twisted into a shape that did not become him purely because of what Doyle’s future held for him. We actually had, for the second time in two years as Anthony Horowtz’s Moriarty (2014) had preceded it, something that felt like originality applied in the Holmes universe, free-reign taken and used intelligently, enriching a far more interesting story that mere slavishness would permit. Because, let’s face it, slavishness is all most Holmes pastiches can lay claim to, and the overwhelming majority of them are unfit to carry the name of the World’s Greatest Detective.
It’s been a three-year wait for this sequel, and I didn’t even know it was on the way until I stumbled upon it online about a week before its publication date. Whether trading on the popularity of the brand following the current cessation of the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss update or not, the title made it clear that Holmes, Jr. would be elevated in presence in this book, and the loving, deeply professional job done with the opening tome made me especially eager to see how the authors would develop their universe and characters. Was there scope to build on what they’d introduced and, more importantly, could they hope to follow up that first book with something as assured, as original, and — frankly — as good?
So, let’s get that out of the way: no, this is not as good a book as Mycroft Holmes. This is leaps and bounds better. This is an utterly spectacular novel of rich and staggering invention, of effortless history used seamlessly within a narrative, of faithfulness and respect to a legacy few others will ever come close to matching, of complexity, intelligence, humanity, patience, of such brilliant tonal control, and especially of character-retconning devoid entirely of false notes or awkward segues, that I found myself reading about four chapters at a time and then just sitting and staring into space, simultaneously delighted and yet fearful this couldn’t be maintained. This is in the very upper echelons of Sherlock Holmes pastiches written to date — and yes, there have been (ahem) a lot of them, and no I haven’t come close to reading every single one — but also a deeply satisfying book in its own right. Goddamn, I hope these two don’t stop here. I want fifteen more of these, right now.
Given that the appeal of most Holmes pastiches lies in the utilisation of that compelling character, we might as well start there. The narrative is split maybe 45%-35%-20% betwixt Mycroft, Sherlock, and Mycroft’s friend and confidante Cyrus Douglas, and each is given their own internal life that feeds the relationships which emerge. Mycroft is 26 years old here, working at the War Office but trying to get someone of importance to listen to his gloomy prognostications on the matter of the English economy — and we, of course, know that he has an even greater intellect than his younger brother. Usually, an author attempting to show the whip-smart intelligence of a Holmes has them deduce something early on and then trust this sole display will suffice as evidence of their brilliance for the remainder of the narrative. Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse, however, are not content with this path, and — while we start with some pithy deductions about Mycroft’s neighbour’s wife — are able to communicate the sheer depth of his perception throughout, in all manner of brilliantly believable ways: not for this Holmes the showy, over-the-top rigmarole of flowery demonstration, it’s really more a matter of his observations having become so acute that he is almost unable to enter any situation without immediately processing all the information presented to him. And taking this approach feels more natural (see, for instance, his response observing the contents of a book written in Mandarin, or the cunning way he accomplishes his aim in the brief visit he makes to Scotland) it in turn makes for a far more pleasing narrative.
Sherlock, by contrast — 18 years old, frustrated by studying at Cambridge when London and crime are starting to take hold of his heart — is vert much learning: one is undeniably given the impression that Holmes, Jr. became of his staggering abilities through study rather than instinct. So, at a key moment, we have his recollection that:
French scientist Guillame Duchenne de Boulogne had experimented with electricity on his subjects’ faces to ascertain which muscles constricted involuntarily when smiling with genuine mirth, as opposed to a smile meant solely to disarm.
Or the development of his famed logical processes in moments like:
After following a trail of speculation down one path and another, he always returned to Occam’s razor, otherwise known as the law of parsimony: the simplest explanation is often the most likely.
The trick now, and one he had to perfect at all costs, was to take the solution he was not yet certain of, and work backwards, retracing each vital step.
Equally, the Sherlock Holmes we know and love is found in moments of this teenager’s self-censure over not paying enough attention to specific details of a scene when he was present, so finding himself unable to speculate on certain aspects of a problem. As with his older brother, these flow naturally out of the narrative and both inform the book we’re reading and provide a basis for the man he is destined to become.
The relationship between the two is gorgeous to watch, too. From Mycroft not wishing to “divulge that he had passed through the doors of a herbalist” because “he would never hear the end of it” to Sherlock’s own pithy summation that “Mycroft does not wish to be reminded that a few drops of French blood are skulking about our veins like cat burglars, waiting for the opportune time to — well, to do something French, I suppose”, there’s a real joy in seeing two immensely intelligent men pulled down to the level of mere mortals by having to deal with a sibling who knows them so well. The bickering is minimal, because they work in far more intelligent ways than that, but they clearly know each other foibles and weaknesses: see Sherlock distracting Mycroft by starting a conversation about their parents which he knows his older brother will be emotionally incapable of dealing with, or this wonderful passage early on concerning Mycroft’s decision not to bestow any of his vast sums of money on his brother:
Sherlock’s absence of ready cash stemmed solely from the fact that he did not see the point of it. He would misplace it, or confuse a half crown for a halfpenny, leaving giddy vendors in his wake and himself insolvent. And paper currency was even worse. In the throes of some other pursuit entirely, he would pull a banknote from his pocket and clean out that horrid little briar pipe that he’d recently substituted for his hand-rolled cigarettes. Or, he would scribble up it some equation or random thought, so that the denomination was all but obliterated.
Following a raft of cinematic failures that deem it necessary to give the provenance of every single item associated with a pre-existing character — the most recent being needless Star Wars-universe origin story Solo (2018) — the origins of Sherlock’s briar pipe, for one, is dealt with in such a simple and pleasing way that you wonder why others can’t have this lightness of touch.
It is Cyrus Douglas, however, who provides perhaps the greatest background to the origins of Sherlock Holmes: unawed by the obstreperous, anti-social, awkward teenager he occasionally find himself lumped with — “His patience was already wearing thin…and no one could rip away its remaining shreds more thoroughly than young Sherlock Holmes” — it is Douglas who schools Sherlock in several key regards, not least the approach he takes to people less immediately brilliant than himself. It is Douglas, too, who in starting the Nikolus House school for boys to receive an education, and find their way into work and out of London’s blighted Devil’s Acre, who provides much of the morality in the tale. A proud, intelligent man who is only too aware that his Trinidadian heritage and the colour of his skin serve as a distinct disadvantage in late-Victorian London, Douglas chooses to run his business through intermediaries, earning the scorn of the very boys he is trying to better purely because they see him as someone lower than themselves who has achieved something they believe they never will.
And yet there is no bitterness in him because of this: yes, it is a very different Douglas who is able to exploit his links with the shipping and, through Mycroft’s coachman Huan, the immigrant communities that play such a large part in the plot, but he is at heart a realist who understands the frailties of human perspective. Upon being told by two new recruits to his school that their father was a “pigeon fancier who took a tumble off a roof”, he reflects that:
There seemed a glut of pigeon-related deaths in the Devil’s Acre. In truth, the parents might have been run over by a dray, or died from disease, or been disposed of. Or perhaps one or other had beaten the boys from one side of the wall to the other, until the streets and servitude seemed a fairer bargain than the brutality at home.
It’s in moments and reflections like these that the history and the setting really bleed through: to our refined tastes, the squalor of the last 19th century seems appalling, but Abdul-Jabar and Waterhouse are able to communicate it in a way that is both rich and commonplace — to these characters, walking these streets would be nothing new, and so doing so is treated as no more exceptional than any other setting or occurrence herein. We are refreshingly free of anything that feels like Research Crammed Into A Novel, with nary an info-dump in sight and yet still a varied, tangible, and realistic milieu in which the plot must operate. From the buying of a promotion rather than it being earned on merit, or Queen Victoria being surrounded by “pen-wielding bureaucrats whose sole job it was to make life easier for the monarch and excruciating for everybody else”, life is breathed into the setting by the merest puff here and there, rather than a typhoon of exhausting detail poured down upon the readers who are here simply to enjoy themselves.
“Can’t be done.”
Yes, I know I’m going on. I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. See, because it is superbly written: not just in those three characters, not just in the patient development of a plot that feels era-appropriate without lazily overlaying attitudes from 150 years hence, but in every moment, every character, every page. The young charges in Douglas’ care are full of scepticism where Douglas and Sherlock are concerned, but come around to trusting them in a way that is far more than mere plot convenience. Our authors are definitely helped by not having to ape the Watsonian voice, able to offer their own perspective on a universe that is at once familiar and new, but they’re also more than savvy enough to know that “Well, at least we don’t have to get Watson right!” doesn’t in and of itself mean the writing will be good — sure, you avoid one hurdle, but you place another eight or nine on the way when you makes such bold decisions as following the youthful Sherlock on the hunt, or taking the time to send Mycroft to Scotland for a side-mission that has no direct influence on the core plot. The number of risks taken here that pay off beautifully would be a post all of its own; it says something about how superbly handled this whole enterprise is when an awkward sentence like “the dead body was as purple as the purple marble slab on which it lay” is the only moment I found myself drawn up short. Because, dude, I have a fairly rich history of finding fault with Sherlockian pastiches, and I’m not even that much of a die-hard fan.
The slow build of the plot — and, yes, it gets a little complicated and perhaps a tiny bit serendipitous towards the end — works in the necessity for things like Sherlock engaging in and thus seeing the benefit of disguise, but also takes in far wider issues like the immigrant experience in Britain, and the legalised nature of drugs and drug dens, while carefully building the edifice behind which Mycroft will find himself trapped twenty years from now. It’s also full of beautiful turns of phrase — a grief-stricken young boy’s face “as rumpled as a partially made bed”, the mother of university associates of Sherlock’s typified as so “wan and spectral…Sherlock was hard pressed to believe she even cast a shadow”, or even simply derelict buildings with “crumbling brickwork patched with plaster, like dozens upon dozens of yellowed bandages pressed upon a fighter already beaten beyond recognition” — betokening just how much care has gone into, how much artistry has been applied, to every single regard. There’s not a false note in here; hell, even the cameos of two people inextricably linked with Holmes lore feel like gentle touches where others would plonk them in with no great ceremony and then expect applause for including those names.
This. Is. A. Superb. Book. I urge those of you with an interest in Sherlock Holmes, in historical mysteries, in good writing to acquire a copy at your earliest convenience — don’t be put off by a famous name on the cover, I assure you that this is no mere celebrity cash-in. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse might just be doing the best work in Holmes universe-extension currently happening, and we need to celebrate this, to encourage it, to nurture it, to enable its continuation. It’s wonderful that something this considered, this intelligent, this loving, this respectful, this entertaining can still find its way to market, and as the intended audience I am very, very keen that more of these get written and published. Who would have thought the elder Holmes to have had so much life in him, eh?
The Mycroft Holmes novels by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse: