When it comes to obsession, all other fans — Trekkies, Potterheads, Browncoats — must bow before the Holmesians. The followers of Sherlock Holmes have been dredging through the life of their hero since he was first published in 1887. They wore black armbands when he was allegedly killed at the Reichenbach Falls and nagged his author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to resurrect him in 1903. (George R.R. Martin would probably sympathize.) They’ve created literary societies and published enough fan-fiction to fill several libraries.
So it’s not too surprising that they’ve moved on to the supporting characters in Holmes’ life in their ravenous search for new material. There have been books featuring Irene Adler, Moriarty and, now, Mycroft Holmes, about the great detective’s smarter older brother, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his coauthor, Anna Waterhouse.
Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the greatest basketball players of all time. That’s the kind of thing that always stands out on your résumé, no matter what else you do in your life. But Abdul-Jabbar has also had a long career as a bestselling writer, with multiple books to his credit and a regular column in Time magazine.
And as it turns out, he’s a huge Holmesian. In the author bio for “Mycroft Holmes,” he says he used the lessons he learned from Sherlock to gain an edge on his opponents on the court — which is a little like discovering the star quarterback at your high school had a poster of the Doctor in his locker.
Mycroft is an enigmatic figure in Doyle’s original stories, usually found in an armchair at the Diogenes Club in the company of other proper gentlemen. He’s supposedly a minor government functionary, but according to his brother, he’s “the most indispensable man in the country,” keeping all the secrets of the British Empire in his massive brain. Even Sherlock admits that Mycroft’s intellect far exceeds his own. As portrayed by Mark Gatiss on the BBC’s modern update “Sherlock,” he is the living embodiment of the surveillance state, on constant guard against a million possible threats at once.
But Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse go back in time to 1870, when Mycroft is still a “strapping young man” fresh out of Cambridge and an aide to the British secretary of state for war. All he wants is to make enough money to buy a house for his fiancée, Georgiana, and raise a family.
Obviously, that’s not going to happen.
Mycroft’s best friend, a West Indian tobacconist named Cyrus Douglas, and Georgiana learn of a series of child killings on Trinidad, which is home to both of them. The victims were found on the beach with their blood drained. The only clue: backward-facing footprints in the sand — supposedly the work of the douen, spirits of unbaptized children who deliver their prey to a giant mosquito called the lougarou.
Georgiana immediately returns to the island. Mycroft and Cyrus follow to investigate the mystery. From the start, nothing goes as planned. Georgiana vanishes. Mycroft and Cyrus are attacked and poisoned. And in the Caribbean, they find a price on their heads.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that there’s nothing supernatural behind the killings. Other writers have matched Sherlock against H.G. Wells’ Martians and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and Doyle himself believed in fairies and spirits. But blaming the occult is a cheat and a dodge in the world of Mycroft Holmes: No matter how strange the facts might appear, he has faith that there is always a rational answer.
Cyrus doesn’t suffer the same illusions. While it’s his job to fill the Watson role — asking Mycroft to explain his brilliant deductions for the poor, slow reader — Cyrus is a far more complex character than a mere sidekick, or even Mycroft himself. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a martial-arts master with his own spy network on the island.)
As a black man in a deeply racist and bigoted time, he is forced to hide his ownership of his shop so that it won’t be burned down and pretends to be Mycroft’s valet so they can both avoid abuse. He’s all too aware of the uglier side of human nature and how it can hide behind the Victorian values that Mycroft champions.
Very soon, Mycroft is forced to see it as well. He doesn’t like it much. As Cyrus remarks, sadly, “You have an enormous arsenal of tools at your disposal.... But you have never encountered true evil, and in order to comprehend evil, you have to learn to think as evil does. Once you do that … you are never the same.”
Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse have created a smart origin story for Mycroft that slots neatly onto the shelves next to the original canon, but also reveals some harsh truths that Doyle probably never considered. We get to see the birth of the plotter and schemer of the other stories. Mycroft begins this adventure convinced that he will find a logical explanation, and that once the truth is out, everything will be put right.
But rationality has its limits. What he learns is that sometimes the villains are all too human, and what we do to each other can be more monstrous than any blood-sucking demon.
Farnsworth’s latest novel is “The Eternal World.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
Titan Books: 336 pp., $25.99