Friday, October 23, 2015

Good news for fans of Sherlock Holmes

Although Arthur Conan Doyle published his last Sherlock Holmes story almost ninety years ago in 1927, the popularity of the character has never waned. A steady stream of books, comics, plays, movies, and TV shows continue to re-imagine this master of observation and deduction. As a long-time fan of the Holmes detective genre, I watch almost all the new movies and TV shows, and inspect the latest books. Most of them, however, fail to live up to my lofty expectations. The popular movies starring Robert Downey Jr., for example, turn Holmes into an action figure more like Batman. While perfectly entertaining, these movies have little to do with my image of the detective. More my style is the recent BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, or the movie Mr. Holmes from this past summer that portrayed Holmes struggling with memory loss in his old age.

The latest novel to embrace this genre, Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse is a pleasant surprise. What first caught my attention is the book’s co-author, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a person best known as the all-time leading scorer in the NBA. Since his basketball retirement in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar has co-authored a number of books with African-American history themes, but this is his first venture into fiction. Mycroft Holmes, a minor and somewhat mysterious figure in the original stories, comes to life in this novel, demonstrating a similar intellectual rigor and similar egotism as typically displayed by his brother. Set in the early 1870s, this novel finds Sherlock at college and still refining his powers of deduction under the tutelage of his elder brother Mycroft, a civil servant in the British government.

What Mycroft Holmes does very well is weave in a history of African Diaspora, slavery and racial oppression without overwhelming the underlying mystery. The story is set in motion by a number of strange deaths in Trinidad attributed to the douen and lougarou, evil spirits that might remind the reader of the hound of Baskerville. Mycroft is drawn into this mystery by the concerns of his fiancĂ©, Georgiana, whose family are white plantation owners on the Island, as well as his friend Cyrus Douglas, a businessman of African descent, born in Trinidad. There is richness to Douglas’ character, as a person who has to continually negotiate a difficult racial path in Victorian England.  On the other hand, the most disappointing aspect of the story is the lack of well-developed female characters. Even Georgiana, the central femme fatale, is such a flat half-character that I scarcely cared about her. It would have enriched the story a great deal if the reader could be more invested in her role. While the story is engagingly well-written, with elements that will remind the reader of Doyle’s work, it never reaches the depth or complexity of the original. The mystery that motivates Douglas and Holmes to take a difficult journey to Trinidad becomes secondary and its solution is almost inconsequential. There is instead an action sequence toward the end of the book that will remind the reader more of the Downey movies than the deductive reasoning with which my image of Sherlock Holmes uses to bring his cases to a close.

How about you--who is you favorite Holmes? What are your favorite adaptations in books and shows?

 --Reviewed by Kevin S.--

1 comment:

Patty said...

Thanks Kevin, this was really interesting. I remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's books about African American inventors and Black Profiles in Courage, but did not know about the Sherlock Holmes book - sounds like a mystery with an interesting historic twist. PP