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MYCROFT AND SHERLOCK:THE EMPTY BIRDCAGE
by KareemAbdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse
Titan, September 2019
336 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1785659308


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Mycroft and Sherlock series imagines cases from Sherlock's youth prior to his fortuitous introduction to Dr. John H. Watson, but it's far more than a prequel. It expands Sherlock's world in a plethora of exciting ways.

Abdul-Jabbar is probably memorable firstly for playing professional basketball, back in the 1970s and 80s, and subsequently as a humanitarian and philanthropist, for which work he was honored by President Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

One year prior, he had published his first Mycroft and Sherlock novel, Mycroft Holmes, a collaboration with seasoned script doctor Anna Waterhouse. Their partnership, like that of their fraternal protagonists, has consistently worked magic. In the third adventure, MYCROFT AND SHERLOCK: The Empty Birdcage, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse are at the top of their game.

So are Mycroft and Sherlock. Mycroft, elder brother of the future detective, is still worrying about his fragile and declining health and debating human nature with his friend Cyrus Douglas, a philanthropist of African descent who tempers Mycroft's cynicism. Mycroft is intrigued by the heroine of the last book, Chinese-British medicine woman Ai Lin. Unfortunately, she's scheduled to marry an up and coming businessman, Bing Shi... until he disappears.

While Mycroft and Douglas investigate, Sherlock has problems of his own: relatable and comical ones stemming from being a cantankerous genius at a college that doesn't reward experimentation or creativity. A chemical accident gets him sent down from Cambridge, at least temporarily, to Mycroft's apoplectic consternation. Which means that Sherlock is available to investigate a series of murders, in which seemingly random victims located throughout Britain die without any visible cause, and so do various animals in the vicinity.

Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse paint a wide-sweeping imperial panorama, with action that takes Mycroft and company from the International World Exhibition in Vienna to the "rookeries" of London, where social problems are very much those of modern America. "I am here," Ai Lin says of her impromptu clinic in the rookeries, "because the death rate is twice that in neighbouring Kensington, and the average life span all of seventeen. So, where else should I be?"

Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse offer a fast-paced plot, full of Doyle-style bickering between the brothers and Douglas, and lots of great turns of phrase. "Unless you wish to remain in Vienna and listen to the incessant yowling of all these injured wolves of commerce," asks Douglas, "shall we meet downstairs?" Holmes, having learned that "experimenting upon one's fellow students appears to be an expellable offense," insists that this is "something they should elucidate for incoming undergraduates, as it is not a thing one would simply assume."

The twin mysteries investigated by the brothers are well worth following. The resolution is urgent, topical, and not at all an escape from the world of 2019, particularly 2019 America. Still, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse's Victorian world-building is utterly convincing on its own terms. THE EMPTY BIRDCAGE accurately depicts a London that was becoming increasingly multiethnic and cosmopolitan as the new century approached. It also is the story of Sherlock becoming Holmes: of a kid who didn't fit in becoming a citizen hero, and, as the subtitle (The Empty Birdcage) hints, about Mycroft's gradual discovery that love ... fraternal and romantic... is sometimes made of letting people find their own wings.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, July 2019

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