Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who will be the featured speaker at this year’s presentation of the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction in San Francisco on June 27, has enjoyed a distinguished writing career since his retirement from basketball. The author of numerous acclaimed nonfiction works, including On the Shoulders of Giants, in which he views American history and his own life through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance, he has now published his first novel, a historical mystery starring Sherlock Holmes’ older (and smarter) brother. Here Abdul-Jabbar talks about the new book and his fondness for Holmes and history.
You wrote Mycroft Holmes with a coauthor, Anna Waterhouse, also your collaborator on the documentary version of On the Shoulders of Giants. What was writing fiction with a coauthor like and how did the two of you divide the labor?
My co-writer (Anna Waterhouse) and I carefully constructed the story first. There were some things I knew I wanted. A portion of the story had to take place in Trinidad. Mycroft would have a black sidekick. The adventure would begin with the Cambridge/Oxford crew race and end at Ascot. And because of the year (1870), it would have something to do with slavery. But I wanted the ‘how’ to be a surprise, for the plot to turn upon itself even when people thought they knew where it was going. We divided labor according to strengths: mine is story, hers is dialogue. And finally we batted it back and forth, chapter by chapter, finessing and polishing each one. We wanted to be true to the era: but to also pay homage to the style of Arthur Conan Doyle without mimicking it. It’s turned into a little jewel, in my opinion.
Well, I’m a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. I was given my first collection in my rookie year in the NBA and took the stories on the road. It increased my powers of observation, and I incorporated that into my game. But there are so many variations of Sherlock. I didn’t want to join a crowded field. I was always intrigued by this older brother whom Sherlock himself said was “smarter”’ and who was in the smack-center of British government when Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world. But ACD introduces Mycroft as a curmudgeon, an obese recluse in his 40s. He is not the sort of “hero” I would gravitate to. I imagined him in his 20s: maybe he was an athletic and rather “full of himself” 23-year-old, fresh out of Cambridge, with a nice, upwardly mobile position as secretary to Edward Cardwell, the Secretary of State for War. Then his life was torn by circumstances beyond his control. His journey to Trinidad has him visit an old physician, who diagnoses him with a heart condition. (This was quite the coincidence, as it was many months before my own diagnosis.) We don’t fully exploit the heart condition in this particular novel — Mycroft is only in his early 20s—but if we’re lucky enough for sequels, we’ll address it.
Talk, too, about the relationship between Mycroft and Cyrus Douglas, a very un-Watson—not a foil at all—and how you see that partnership developing if you turn this novel into a series (and this reader devoutly hopes you do!).
I’m glad you liked Douglas. As we developed him, he came out fully formed and inserted himself into the story. Although I think Watson is a great character who brings a human touch to Sherlock Holmes, Douglas was never intended as a sidekick. He is a complete character, with his unique vision of the world. It was vital that he’d also be the heart and conscience of this duo. Though both brothers are quite complex, there’s a simple difference between the two: while Sherlock is a bloodhound who needs a criminal in order to exist (“The game’s afoot!”), Mycroft is by nature a politician and a diplomat. Individual criminals are not his thing. He’s interested in the bigger picture. His real goal is (or will be) to empower the British government so that crimes can be stopped before they’re committed. He’ll even let a criminal go, if it means catching a bigger one in his wake. This makes him more Machiavellian than Sherlock. So he needs a sidekick who is up to the task of “checking” him, whom he respects and listens to. Since Mycroft always thinks of himself as the smartest guy in the room, Douglas—in his quiet way—must meet him head to head.
I was struck by the fascinating historical detail in the novel—the culture and folklore of Trinidad, the tobacco business, even the development of the Gatling gun—and how seamlessly it was incorporated into the story. In the course of your research, were there any great discoveries—odd facts or little-known bits of history that you weren’t familiar with and that screamed to become part of the book?
Glad you noticed. As any writer will tell you—and as I’ve now found out from personal experience—that ‘seamlessness’ is tough. It’s like any good basketball move: you work it and work it until it looks effortless. We scoured 1870 for every newfangled creation and minutiae of daily life. I don’t want to give away the farm, since most are part of the plot. But a weird one was “mourning jewelry.” Ash and/or hair, and even bits of bone of a dead loved one were placed inside some gaudy bauble and worn as a sign of bereavement. I also liked the fact that men would have their own personal caches of cigars that they would accumulate and then leave at their favorite tobacconist. The brands and numbers of cigars spoke to their relative wealth and success. Instead of taking them home, you’d leave them at the shop and go there to smoke them!
Whenever possible, we tried to incorporate historical characters into our plot. Not just Queen Victoria or Cardwell (the Secretary of State for War) but also the physician who diagnoses Mycroft with a heart ailment . . . all the way down to the governor of Trinidad in 1870. It was mandatory that the story was true not just to Conan Doyle’s awe-inspiring creations but to the era as well.
The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction announcement and reception will be at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 27, at the Hotel Nikko (222 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA). For more information, or to purchase tickets, click here.