One is the NBA’s all time leading scorer, the other is the brother of one of the best known fictional characters in history. Emmet Ryan examines the literary challenge facing Kareem Abdul—Jabbar’s plan to write a novel based on Mycroft Holmes.
Forget, if you can, the 6 NBA titles as a player along with 2 as an assistant coach earned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during his career in basketball. Forget too the 19 All Star appearances, the 10 times he was named on the All NBA first team, the 6 MVP awards, the hall of fame career, recognition as one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, the 3 NCAA titles, and 3 NCAA player of the the year awards too. Forget, if it is at all possible, the sky-hook and the innovation necessary to develop a shot associated squarely with one talent. Forget all of these things because nothing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has faced in basketball can possibly prepare him for the latest challenge he has taken on.
Sherlock Holmes is, in the most basic of terms, one of the best known and discussed characters in literarature. Abdul-Jabbar, a confessed Holmes nut, is taking on a challenge Arthur Conan Doyle never attempted throughout the Holmes cannon, building a novel squarely around the great detective’s brother.
Fans of the BBC’s Sherlock will have a rather different view of Mycroft to how he is presented in the Holmes cannon. In terms of his role and influence, the series stays true, but it ignores one crucial facet which one can only expect Abdul-Jabbar to take on given his love for the original stories: Mycroft is really, really, lazy.
To get a better understanding of the task ahead of the man who played such a wonderful cameo in Airplane, I sought the views of another Holmes fanatic with a PhD in English literature. Dr Fergal Casey spends a lot of time thinking about Sherlock Holmes and I asked him to solve this case to give us an idea of what to expect from the final product. To do this, Dr Casey brings us inside the mind of Mycroft Holmes:
“Mycroft s always in the Diogenes Club between 4.45pm and 7.40pm each evening, and is one of the founder members.
Holmes’ long explanation of his brother’s character:
‘If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He would not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. … absolutely incapable of working out the practical points which must be gone into before a case could be laid before a judge and jury. .. the merest hobby of a dilettante. He has an extraordinary faculty for figures, and audits the books in some of the Government departments. Mycroft lodges in Pall Mall, and he walks round the corner into Whitehall every morning and back every evening. From year’s end to year’s end he takes no other exercise, and is seen nowhere else, except only in the Diogenes club, which is opposite his rooms.’
Watson lays immense stress on how fat Mycroft is, he describes his hand in greeting as a seal proffering a flipper.
But ‘His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light watery grey, seemed always to retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.’
And so Sherlock admits that Mycroft is by far the smarter brother.
Incidentally ‘indolent’ is not used once in this story! Methinks that was an invention of the [Jeremy] Brett TV show.
Sherlock and Mycroft observe two men through a window with Mycroft beating Sherlock in observation and deduction, as promised.
After the Greek Interpreter tells his tale Sherlock asks if Mycroft has taken steps. Mycroft has put an ad in the Times, but somehow not risen to the challenge of contacting the Greek legation:
‘Sherlock has all the energy of the family,’ said Mycroft, turning to Holmes. ‘Well, you take up the case by all means, and let me know if you do any good.’
When they get back to the flat Holmes gives ‘a start of surprise’ that Mycroft has taken a cab and beaten them to it, to let them know that his ad got an answer.
‘You don’t expect such energy from me, do you, Sherlock? But somehow this case attracts me.’
He then deduces everything about the man who answered the advertisement and the sort of pen and paper used.
When they reach the villain’s lair in Beckenham there’s a reference to Mycroft making his way up the stairs as fast as his great bulk would permit.
So, in summary, Mycroft is really, really fat. Also he’s very, very smart, but totally unsociable and so has invented his own club for the most unclubbable men in London.
Based on this story Charles Gray in the Brett TV show is by far the most faithful screen Mycroft.”
This was a great start and certainly present some idea of the challenge facing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in developing a Mycroft novel. The Jeremy Brett era TV portrayal of Holmes say Mycroft feature more prominently than any other version as Brett was dying of cancer and Gray (arguably best known for his turn as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever) filled in as Mycroft for much of the final series.
Dr Casey also examined another one of the original Holmes stores where Mycroft features, the Bruce-Partington Plans. Once more, take it away Dr Casey:
“Holmes laughs at Mycroft sending a telegram that he’s coming over. This is the first time he’s broken his routine since The Greek Interpreter.
‘It is as if you met a tram-car coming down a country lane. Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them. His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall – that is his cycle. Once, and only once, has he been here. What upheaval can possibly have derailed him. … A planet might as well leave its orbit.’
And then came some quality ret-conning:
‘You told me that he had some small office under the British Government.’
Holmes chuckled and explained to Watson.
‘I did not know you quite so well in those days. One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state. You are right in thinking that he is under the British Government. You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British Government.’
‘My dear Holmes!’
‘I thought I might surprise you. Mycroft draws four hundred and fifty pounds a year, remains a subordinate, has no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honour nor title, but remains the most indispensable man in the country.’
‘Well, his position is unique. He has made it for himself. There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living.The same great powers which I have turned to the deduction of crime he has used for this particular business. The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearing-house, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. We will suppose that a Minister needs information as to a point which involves the Navy, India, Canada and the bimetallic question; he could get his separate advices from various departments upon each, but only Mycroftcan focus them all, and say off-hand how each factor would affect the other. They began by using him as a short-cut, a convenience; now he has made himself an essential. In that great brain of his everything is pigeon-holed, and can be handed out in an instant. Again and again his word has decided national policy. He lives in it. He thinks of nothing else save when, as an intellectual exercise, he unbends if I call upon him and ask him to advise me on one of my little problems. But Jupiter is descending today. What can it mean?’
Mycroft arrives, fat as always, ‘a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-grey, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.;
Yet later Watson moans about having to open the door to a lair because Mycroft absolutely and indignantly refuses to shin over some railings.
‘A most annoying business, Sherlock’, said he. ‘I extremely dislike altering my habits, but the powers that be would take no denial. In the present state of Siam it is most awkward that I should be away from the office. But it is a real crisis. I have never seen the Prime Minister so upset. As to the Admiralty – it is buzzing like an overturned bee-hive.’
And the kicker after a lot of explanation of the case:
‘Why do you not solve it yourself, Mycroft?You can see as far as I.’
‘Possibly, Sherlock. But it is a question of getting details. Give me your details, and from an armchair I will return you an excellent expert opinion. But to run here and run there, to cross-question railway guards, and lie on my face with a lens to my eye – it is not my metier. No, you are the one man who can clean the matter up.’
This is obviously the story that Billy Wilder used for his version of Mycroft where Christopher Lee was a spymaster-in-chief, and thin and energetic…
And Mark Gatiss (the man behind the current incarnation or Sherlock) admitted in a documentary that he based his Mycrofy entirely on the Wilder/Lee version.
But Mycroft is not a spymaster, nor is he a field agent: he sounds a lot more like Q in Skyfall, lamenting that somebody occasionally still needs to get out of dressing gown and smoking jacket and get into the field.
It strikes me that Mycroft isn’t M or MI5 or MI6, he’s GCHQ, raw data comes in from everywhere and he sorts through it and sees the connections.”
So after all that, we know an awful lot about the challenge ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but even Dr Casey is left with questions as to how exactly he turns out a story with Mycroft as the focal point.
“It depends whether he’s actually going to try and get the dialogue right and the flavour of the period,” said Dr Casey.
“If Mycroft is in his late 40s/early 50s (say) in 1895 at Bruce-Partington, then fresh from college he’d been in the mid 1860s and the end of Palmerston’s reign of gunboat diplomacy, and British intrigue over the US Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, and Bismarck is just starting to make noises,” he said.
“Or is just using Victoriana as set dressing as all Hollywood bollocksology does, or worse Guy Ritchie semi-steampunk crap? Also, will it have an ending that sets up how Mycroft becomes a fat, isolated, bachelor who shuns human contact?
To wit, is this the direct prequel to Holmes’ Mycroft, or is it leading into the Wilder/Lee/Moffat/Gatiss version of him as M?
What happens to the fiance in Trinidad? Is this related to Wide Sargasso Sea in the post-colonial rewriting of classic Victorian texts stakes?”
Lots of questions and some cause for concern. The one thing that should assuage the worries is that the Hall of Famer taking on the challenge seems to really care about the original works. It’s hard to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar adopting a Guy Ritchie approach. What he ends up doing, even after this deep look into the mind of Mycroft, remains a mystery.