Mycroft? Not Sherlock?
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In 1969 I was the NBA’s first draft pick. The Milwaukee Bucks had won a coin toss with the Phoenix Suns, which meant that, after four years in warm and sunny L.A., I would be back in the cold and the snow — of a consistency and a tenacity that put New York snow to shame. I ended up reading a lot, both at home and on road trips, and someone gave me a full set of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, which I devoured. To this day I believe that the act of paying attention to my environment, of looking for clues that reveal weaknesses in other players, helped my game. Frankly, I thought that was going to be as far as my love affair with all things Holmes went.
Fast forward to 2013. At that point, I had been retired for several years and already had several books under my belt, including two autobiographies, another about my time coaching kids on a Native American reservation, one about African Americans who served with distinction in World War II, yet another about the Harlem Renaissance, even a few children’s books. That’s when my manager and producing partner, Deborah Morales, asked me if I had ever thought about writing a novel.
No, I said. But if I were to write one, it would be an exploration on Sherlock Holmes’s older and lesser-known brother Mycroft.
Needless to say, Deborah didn’t hear the cash register ring. But, dutiful soul that she is, she brought aboard our friend Anna Waterhouse, a screenwriter who had helped produce two documentaries with us, one which aired on HBO, the other which ended up winning the NAACP Award for Best Documentary. Anna admitted that she didn’t know much about Mycroft Holmes (or Sherlock, for that matter), but that she was willing to investigate.
We began work on the first novel, Mycroft Holmes, in 2014, which came out in September 2015 to great reviews and surprisingly good sales. We deepened our understanding of his character, and of Sherlock’s, in Mycroft and Sherlock, which came out October 9 of this year (2018). Then, recently, we turned in our third novel in the series, which will be published at the end of 2019.
The first book only features Sherlock in one chapter, whereas in Mycroft and Sherlock they’re almost evenly divided. And our characters are young, by the way: in book two, Mycroft is only 26 and Sherlock is 19. They’re still discovering things about themselves and each other. They’re still making mistakes. They have a ways to go before they inhabit the characters that Conan Doyle writes about.
Frankly, the differences between the brothers are more compelling than their similarities, but let’s get the similarities out of the way. They’re both extremely keen observers of human nature, and of details in nature that most of us wouldn’t notice on a bet. They’re both willful and eccentric, wrapped up in their own internal worlds (understandable, since the external world can barely keep up with them). But whereas Sherlock is fascinated by crime and criminals, and like a bloodhound on the scent is determined to “get his man,” Mycroft is interested only in the bigger picture: the criminals whose misdeeds might upset the global balance, especially if doing so can in any way injure his beloved England. And, whereas Sherlock studies different sorts of cigarette and cigar ash, paper stock, or the tracks that vehicles make in order to become more proficient at reading clues, Mycroft is blessed and cursed with a photographic memory and the ability to speed read. Since genius comes more easily to him than to Sherlock, he tends to treat it the way most of us treat our fingers: convenient, sure; but not really something we give a great deal of thought to. This of course annoys Sherlock no end, as does Mycroft’s dismissal of anything that interests Sherlock.
Mycroft is also, by nature, more conventional than Sherlock. While Sherlock has no interest in courtship, Mycroft would like nothing better than to have a home and a family. Since we know that can never be — because Conan Doyle kept them both bachelors — as authors, it is our sad duty to be sure that Mycroft can’t ever get what he wants in the romance department.
The parts of the novel that seem to be the most fun for readers are the ones that feature both brothers working together, and yet keeping secrets from each other and trying to outmaneuver each other. These competitions between siblings are a lot of fun for us to write, especially given that both Anna and I are only children. It’s all the arguments we would have had with siblings, I guess, if we’d had the chance.
And of course, in starting them so young, we can also delve into how they were raised and how that might account for their behavior and their oddities. Conan Doyle tells us only that their parents were “country squires,” meaning landowners, so it gives us a lot of leeway to speculate.
Whatever happens from this point on, I’ve really enjoyed putting together these stories — more like gigantic puzzles, really — and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to explore these fascinating characters. A big thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle, and an even bigger thanks to our faithful readers.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a global icon that changed the game of professional basketball. Since his stellar professional career, he has gone on to become a celebrated New York Times-bestselling author, filmmaker, ambassador of education, and Time Magazine columnist. A sought-after speaker, Abdul-Jabbar recounts in riveting and humorous detail his exciting evolution from street ball player to successful athlete, author, producer, and community activist.