Almost nine decades after the last of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories appeared in Strand magazine, new exploits of the master detective continue to appear. Titan Books, in particular, has carved out a niche in publishing pastiches, averaging about four new Holmes novels per year, including everything from traditional tales to steampunk reimaginings. But Titan’s fall headliner, Mycroft Holmes (Sept.), is more than a bit different from the rest of its Holmes list—and not just because the focus is on Sherlock’s older, smarter brother. Its author may be the most unusual person ever to pen a Holmesian story: the National Basketball Association’s all-time scoring leader, sports superstar and Renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Now 68, Abdul-Jabbar, is best known for his basketball career. He first played (and dominated) in high school, at New York City’s Power Memorial Academy, then at UCLA under legendary coach John Wooden, and finally as a six-time professional champion with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar discussed Holmes, and much more, in an interview at Manhattan’s Langham Place Hotel—a very appropriate setting, given that London’s Langham Hotel features prominently in three Conan Doyle stories. It was also the site, in 1889, of Doyle’s first encounter with Oscar Wilde, believed by some to have been an inspiration for the Mycroft Holmes character.
Though Abdul-Jabbar read some mystery fiction growing up in New York, including Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal Dupin stories, he didn’t read Conan Doyle until he was on a road trip to San Diego during his rookie season in 1969–1970. Abdul-Jabbar says that “the stories, and the character of the master thinker, were a revelation,” and he soon finished the Holmes canon. His favorite was“The Red Headed League.” He liked “the quirkiness of it: after all, who hires people solely based on hair color?” And he also liked its imperfections—“the fact that Conan Doyle was more interested in telling a rousing good tale than in getting every detail right.”
Abdul-Jabbar was “fascinated by Holmes’s ability to see clues where other people saw nothing” and says that he realized that studying Holmes’s powers of observation could sharpen his game and make him a better player. While it would be facile to attribute the NBA star’s unparalleled success on the court to Dr. Watson’s vivid accounts of his colleague’s brilliant deductions, Abdul-Jabbar’s engagement with the stories exemplifies the intellectual approach he took toward the game of basketball, and everything else he does.
Along with countless other devotees of the adventures of Holmes and Watson, Abdul-Jabbar wanted to craft a new case, inspired by 1979’s Enter the Lion: A Posthumous Memoir of Mycroft Holmes by Michael P. Hodel and Sean Wright (Hawthorn), his favorite pastiche. But, as with many first novels, writing what was to become Mycroft Holmes took much longer than expected. It was only recently that Abdul-Jabbar’s manager, Deborah Morales, challenged him to get off the bench and scratch this particular literary itch, prompting him to return to the project with renewed focus.
Holmes expert Les Klinger read Abdul-Jabbar’s book proposal and recommended that he reach out to Titan Books. Editor Steve Saffel at Titan found the writing to be “bold and energetic” and “liked the overarching concept.” Saffel says, “It was clear from the outset that this was a wonderful opportunity, so we pursued it enthusiastically.” The revelations of Mycroft’s backstory, some enticing tidbits about Sherlock, and the siblings’ complex relationship separated the plot line from the many other Holmes stories Saffel has read.
A chilling opening set in 1870 Trinidad teases readers to learn who—or what—is killing the island’s children, draining their blood, and leaving behind bizarre backward-facing footprints. The mystery eventually comes to the attention of a 23-year-old Mycroft Holmes, who is secretary to the British Secretary of State for War, and who ends up traveling to the Caribbean to solve the crimes, aided by his black friend Cyrus Douglas, who was raised in Trinidad.
Abdul-Jabbar felt that the original stories portrayed the British Empire in a particular light, and he wanted to provide a “perspective from the colonies.” Having his hero travel to a colony where the legacy of slavery was still strong afforded him a way to use a very different lens from Doyle’s. And the relatively little information Doyle shared about Mycroft gave Abdul-Jabbar a clean canvas to work on.
Mycroft Holmes is far from being Abdul-Jabbar’s first book. That distinction goes to 1983’s Giant Steps: The Autobiography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, coauthored with Peter Knobler (Bantam), which opens, counterintuitively (given the adult Abdul-Jabbar’s size and strength), with the line, “I used to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s recollections of growing up include a tragedy: in 1964, when he was 17, he worked for a Harlem newspaper and covered the story of a white off-duty cop who fatally shot a black teenager. (An updated memoir is one of the next book ideas Abdul-Jabbar is considering.)
Once asked what he’d have been if he hadn’t entered the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar responded that he’d have taught history. That passion is reflected in his other nonfiction books. Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement (Morrow, 1996), coauthored with Alan Steinberg, was described by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as “essential reading for all who long for an accessible introduction to African-American history,” and “the testimony of a great athlete to the importance of scholarship, study, and intellectual reflection—the crucial importance of the life of the mind.”
In addition to well-known heroes like Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks, Abdul-Jabbar presented the lives of lesser-known figures such as Estevanico, an explorer who was the first “non-Indian” to set foot in Arizona and New Mexico; Bass Reeves, the first black deputy marshal appointed to work west of the Mississippi; and Lewis Latimer, an inventor “who played critical roles in the development” of the telephone and the incandescent light bulb. And in 2004, Abdul-Jabbar reclaimed from obscurity the story of an all-black armored unit in Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes, coauthored with Anthony Walton (Broadway).
Now Abdul-Jabbar has written a compelling Victorian thriller, aided by coauthor Anna Waterhouse, who was the supervising producer on his award-winning documentary On the Shoulders of Giants, based on his book of that title about the Harlem Renaissance (which includes the memorable sentence, “In Harlem, necessity was the mother of integration”).
Since shooting his trademark hook shot in the pros for the last time in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar has branched out in other areas. In 2012, he was named by then–Secretary of State (and current Democratic presidential hopeful) Hillary Clinton as a global cultural ambassador. And he’s reinvented himself as a public intellectual, writing a regular column for Time, as well as contributing to publications as diverse as the Huffington Post, Jacobin, and the Rotarian.
Abdul-Jabbar’s nonfiction essays don’t shy away from the controversial. “Why I Have Mixed Feelings About M.L.K. Day,” which appeared in Time in January, warned that mourning can sometimes obscure, rather than accentuate, the truth, and that “it’s tempting to use [the] day as a cultural canonization of the man through well-meaning speeches rather than as a call to practice his teachings through direct action.”
Fans of Abdul-Jabbar may be surprised to learn that their hero, who travels with autographed basketball cards to hand out to the many admirers he encounters, is capable of being star-struck himself. His tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks led David Zucker, a Wisconsin native, to seek him out for a supporting, but memorable, role as pilot Roger Murdock in the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!, a character who persisted in denying that he was really Abdul-Jabbar.
Abdul-Jabbar smiles as he recalls his pleasure at being able to spend over two weeks sitting next to Mission Impossible’s Peter Graves, who played his copilot in the film. Abdul-Jabbar later returned to comedy as a guest star on The Simpsons in 2011.
Though some readers may come to Mycroft Holmes for the novelty of its famous author, many will stay for the rich characterizations, atmospherics, and clever plotting, hoping that book two in the series will have a shorter gestation period.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer living in New York City.