Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Mycroft Holmes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Mary Sue

In another attempt to avoid reading more serious books :cough: theendlessjournalsofSylviaPlath :cough: I decided to listen to the audiobook edition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's expansion of the Sherlock Holmes universe, Mycroft Holmes.

I should begin by saying that although I have read all of the Conan Doyle stories and novels, watched all of the BBC television adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, and am currently keeping company with both Sherlock and Elementary, I am by no means a Holmes fanatic. I just like mysteries and Victorian literature, so it's kind of a natural direction for me to head in.

Because of this liking-but-not-LOVING point of view, I have no problem with updates to the canon. I thought it was brilliant in Sherlock when Benedict Cumberbatch texted, rather than spoke to people, or covered himself with nicotine patches instead of smoking a pipe. In Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller can be a recovering addict, and Lucy Liu can be a female Watson; it's all good.

Therefore I was delighted to try Mycroft Holmes. I mean, really. Talk about a built-in opportunity to broaden the readership's knowledge of a character. I felt the same way you'd feel if J. K. Rowling decided to write The Adventures of Dumbledore.

Parts of the book were quite good. I liked the interplay between Mycroft and Sherlock; I liked the hints of a juicy backstory for their mother. I liked that Mycroft's fiancée was pursuing higher education and social reform. I liked the sense of the massive bureaucracy needed to run the British Empire and the way Mycroft happily envisioned himself as a cog in that enormous machine. I liked the insights I got into the history and culture of Trinidad as well as the post-Civil War period in American and international history.

But Mycroft Holmes is, at heart, fan fiction. Fan fiction, in case you aren't aware of the phenomenon, is written by fans of popular novels, television shows, and movies. It started with Star Trek and was published in zines. Now it's happening with Star Wars, Harry Potter, My Little Pony, Naruto, Pokemon, Supernatural, and it's all over the internet. You may or may not be aware that the Fifty Shades trilogy, now threatening to continue into what—a sexology?—started as Twilight fan fiction.

So you see, fanfic has a lot to answer for. But it can also be considered a form of adaptation. We have expectations of film adaptations of our favorite novels; we expect them to be faithful to the originals. But at times, a filmmaker takes familiar characters and settings and runs amok. This is pretty much what happened with Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. There's Alice, and a Mad Hatter, and a Red Queen, but the story itself is all but unrecognizable. In this sense, the movie is failed fanfic.

One way of reviewing Mycroft Holmes is to see how well it succeeds with already existing characters and situations. In this, I think Abdul-Jabbar did pretty well. The Mycroft in this book is only 23 years old, and Sherlock is only 17, so they are at an embryonic state, and Abdul-Jabbar handles this well. He doesn't do anything that conflicts with our already-established understanding of the characters.

My only problem, other than the somewhat pedestrian prose and flat dialogue, was in the character of Cyrus Douglas. He is a middle-aged Trinidadian who has moved to London to go into the tobacco business, and has become Mycroft's best friend. At many times during the novel, Cyrus, who seems destined to be the Watson to Mycroft's Holmes, takes over the narrative. Without including any spoilers, I'll just say that Cyrus is Practically Perfect in Every Way. Which makes sense, because Cyrus is a Mary Sue.

In case this isn't clear (I mean, not everyone spends their time reading 15-year-old Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic ... SPUFFY4EVA) a Mary Sue is basically the author of a fanfic, made pluperfect, and inserted into the narrative. She's the beautiful, talented, kind, understanding—basically perfect—girl who shows up at Hogwarts and Harry Potter (or Draco Malfoy) falls in love with her. 

In Mycroft Holmes, Cyrus is athletic, intelligent, enterprising, open-minded, and capable of teaching many things to his young friend Mycroft. He has a rich backstory and has suffered and endured things that Mycroft can not even imagine. This gives the author the opportunity to school his callow white English character on Imperialism, racism, social skills, martial arts, and how to be a good person. 

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It is more of an action story than a mystery, and the pace plods a bit at times, but parts of it are very good. I get a clear sense of place, whether we are in London, Trinidad, or on board a steam ship. And the end, in particular, kicks ass.  I hope that Abdul-Jabbar continues the series. I just hope that next time, he pays a bit more attention to his eponymous hero.

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