Ladies and gentlemen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has entered the arena—though it might not be the one you’d expect. The NBA All-Star has cowritten, with screenwriter Anna Waterhouse, an ode to one of the true mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes universe, Mycroft Holmes.
In a rare starring role for Sherlock’s older brother, we get a glimpse at a young man climbing in government rank, but not yet the sedentary presence Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to in his canon. Here, Mycroft is fresh out of school, head-over-heels in love, and thrumming with activity. He, unlike his sullen, sulky collegiate brother, has achieved a comfortable existence.
That is, until, he’s embroiled in a series of enigmatic, supernaturally tinged disappearances in Trinidad, the home of his fiancée, Georgiana, and the native country of his best friend, Cyrus Douglas. As Mycroft, alongside Cyrus, untangles this web of darkness, we begin to see how this young man will become the older, statelier, more reserved Holmes brother we know.
We talked with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his fascination with that Holmes and how this slam-dunk addition to his written repertoire came to be.
When people think of the name “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” they don’t immediately think of Victorian detective stories. But you’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for quite some time, right?
Yes, I was already a fan as a kid. Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett were staples at the movies and on TV. Then, in my rookie year for the NBA, when I was playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, someone gave me a two-volume set of the canon. Between the bus rides and the locker rooms, I devoured it. After that, I was hooked.
In the Sherlock Holmes canon, Mycroft does not get a lot of love. He’s typically reserved for the role of corpulent, stuffy side character. How did you hit upon him as a subject?
He was fascinating to me, because of all the things that are said about him: that he’s smarter than Sherlock, that he “is” the British government, that he cofounded The Diogenes Club, where members are not allowed to speak. But what wasn’t said about him was just as interesting: why is he obese? Why can he solve crimes as well as Sherlock, but doesn’t really care to? What sort of relationship do the brothers have? And why on earth are they both still single? It all seemed a mystery worthy of Sherlock.
Also, there are already many books about Sherlock. And though he is an endlessly fascinating subject, and some of the books are quite good, we didn’t want to write about a detective in the traditional sense. Mycroft does not go after a singular bad guy. He goes after corruption at high levels, and he tries to undermine it before it grows roots and develops branches. He’s more Machiavellian than Sherlockian, in that sense.
The primary biographical detail about Mycroft, of course, is his day job. As you mentioned, Sherlock sometimes says he is the British government. And here, even at 23, you’ve set him on that path. Still, was it a challenge to turn that sedentary, aristocratic older Mycroft into the spry, wet-behind-the-ears young Mycroft?
My cowriter and I wondered about that for a while. We knew we wanted a more active Mycroft—and, since Mycroft isn’t active at all, that part wouldn’t be so tough. But how could we do it and still remain faithful to Conan Doyle (and Sherlock’s) description? Then we hit upon an image: young Marlon Brando versus older Marlon. Our Mycroft Holmes has twenty years, in other words, to turn into that corpulent recluse. We wanted to lay the groundwork for that eventual and inevitable transformation—but of course we’re hoping it takes a while to get there. And that we will get the chance to do just that.
Now, of course, a Holmes brother is nothing without a sidekick. You’ve given Mycroft one in the form of Cyrus Douglas, whose native Trinidad is where our collective journey takes us. What’s interesting to me is that, while John Watson is very valuable as the reader’s conduit in the Sherlock stories, he’s still pretty tame, clearly along for the ride with Sherlock. Cyrus, though, is on far more equal intellectual footing with Mycroft.
For Mycroft, we wanted an opposite. Not someone from his social milieu. Not someone his age. Not someone with similar experiences or even outlook. We decided that he would be older than Mycroft, so that wisdom alone could sometimes circumvent Mycroft’s “right way of thinking” but perhaps wrong way of acting. He had to be intelligent enough to keep up with Mycroft, but more ethical, with stronger morals: if Mycroft eventually becomes “the” British government, there will be compromises he will have to make that might not be the most moral of choices. We gave them one thing in common: cigars. And then we took it from there. That Douglas would be a whole person in his own right, and not just someone who says, “And why is that, Holmes?” was very important to us.
Speaking of relationships: you and your cowriter, Anna Waterhouse, previously collaborated on the documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. How did you bring that dynamic to novel writing? How did it work in practice?
Well, we are both introverts. So it’s possible we would never have gotten beyond “hello.” Thankfully, my business partner and manager, Deborah Morales, is an extrovert, and she brought us together on Giants. Deborah and I had a bit of a mess on our hands, a rough cut we didn’t care for. Anna helped us find a structure and a theme, and it won awards. Working with each other in that very stressful situation proved quite easy. In the process, I spotted a fellow perfectionist. I knew that if we did another project together, she wouldn’t let go of anything until she was satisfied that it worked, and neither would I. As long as there’s no fighting, that process is not as slow as some might assume. And thankfully, there’s no fighting. About two years ago, I talked to her about my idea for Mycroft Holmes (she wasn’t even sure who he was), and she read the canon. We signed the contract with Titan, who believed in us, and we were on our way. From there, we built an outline, then worked it chapter by chapter, batting it back and forth until it said what we wanted it to say before proceeding to the next. That sort of editing and re-editing is not everyone’s preferred method, but it worked for us.
You hinted at it earlier, but might we see this partnership flourish again with a Mycroft sequel, or at least another book within the Holmesian universe?
We’d like to stay with Mycroft, but that’s what we’re hoping. We’re in talks now to make it happen. But much will depend on how it’s received by the public.
Mycroft Holmes hits B&N shelves today.