A Few Words About Mycroft Holmes
What do we know about Sherlock’s Bro, Mycroft Holmes?
Mycroft Holmes: Smarter than his younger brother, Sherlock, by Sherlock’s own estimation—and no doubt his own as well. A figure of mystery.
We know just a little about him from The Canon. He’s first mentioned in “The Greek Interpreter,” when Sherlock Holmes informs Watson that Mycroft possesses the facility for deduction in a greater degree than he, Sherlock, does. Watson scoffs, and Holmes takes Watson around to that most mysterious of clubs, The Diogenes, to meet the man.
Mycroft Holmes is seven years older than Sherlock, making his year of birth 1847. These two amazing brothers sprang from the same roots. (Traditionally, there is a third, older brother—Sherrinford—who takes care of Holmes family affairs in Yorkshire while Mycroft and Sherlock save the world while based in London.) Like Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft’s ancestors were country squires, and their grandmother was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Holmes explains that “art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms,” and in Mycroft’s case, it appears to have been in the form of making him something of a human calculating machine, and so much more.
When Sherlock Holmes first mentions Mycroft to Watson in September 1888, he explains that Mycroft has an extraordinary faculty for figures and audits the books in some of the government departments. Later, in November 1895, during the events of “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Holmes tells a bit more of the truth, indicating that instead of just working in some of the government departments, Mycroft sometimes is the British Government, adding, “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 detection 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 clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.”
Mycroft lodges in Pall Mall, walks around to his office in Whitehall, and returns to The Diogenes Club, also in Pall Mall, located directly across the street from his lodgings. A very tight little circle indeed. (In my essay, “Pall Mall: Locating the Diogenes Club”, published in The Baker Street Journal [Vol. 67, No. 2, Summer 2017], I identify the specific location of both Mycroft’s club and his residence.) Based on the information given in the few stories in which Mycroft appears in The Canon, one can easily believe that he rarely goes anywhere else. Sherlock Holmes says, “His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall—that is his cycle.” But we do know that he gets out occasionally. After Holmes and Watson visit him in “The Greek Interpreter,” he beats them back to Baker Street where he is waiting to provide additional information. In “The Final Problem,” he makes an unrecognized appearance as a “very massive driver wrapped in a dark cloak” who drives Watson from the Lowther Arcade to Victoria Station. Finally, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” he and Lestrade visit Baker Street to seek brother Sherlock’s assistance. Clearly, Mycroft moves around more than what is expected from someone who is described as having such a fixed orbit.
Except for a few other odds and ends, that’s the limit of Canonical information about Mycroft Holmes. Fortunately, there have been many other stories besides those in The Canon to provide additional insight regarding the indomitable Mycroft. He has appeared in more pastiches than can be mentioned here. Besides being the omniscient government employee, it has been gradually revealed and accepted that he is, in fact, the head of the Victorian and Edwardian British Secret Service. This idea was first implied in the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and also in the accompanying novelization by Michael and Molly Hardwick. Clearly, Mycroft is Britain’s spymaster, and it’s no wonder that he’s begun to be identified in various books as the very first “M.”
There have been any number of book series that explore various individuals associated with Sherlock Holmes: the Professor Moriarty books by Michael Kurland, the Irene Adler books by Carole Nelson Douglas, and the stories and novels about the Scotland Yarders by Marcia Wilson, just to mention a few. It’s no wonder that there have also been quite a few volumes specifically devoted to Mycroft Holmes.
When I was a teenager, one of the first books that I discovered about Mycroft was Enter the Lion (1979) by Michael P. Hodel and Sean M. Wright, wherein Mycroft, a new government employee in the late 1870s, stops a new Confederate uprising from forming within the United States.
Beginning a decade after Hodel and Wright’s effort, Scottish author Glen Petrie wrote three Mycroft novels: The Dorking Gap Affair (1989), The Monstrous Regiment (1990), and The Hampstead Poisonings (1995). Like Enter the Lion, the first two of these take place in the 1870s while Mycroft is learning his craft, while the third jumps to 1889. A fourth, The Young Poisoners, is mentioned online, but I’m not sure that it really exists, as that may be an alternate title for one of the earlier volumes.
Starting in 1997, Quinn Fawcett (actually the husband-and-wife writing team of Bill Fawcett and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) produced four Mycroft volumes, set in the late 1880s: Against the Brotherhood (1997), Embassy Row (1998), The Flying Scotsman (1999), and The Scottish Ploy (2000). Narrated by Mycroft’s earnestly sincere aide, Paterson Guthrie, the books had a very up-and-down quality, and one has the feeling that the series—which was setting up some massive confrontation with an international gang of villains known as “The Brotherhood”—ended before the authors were quite ready.
Besides all of the other Holmes narratives in which Mycroft appears, he was next featured in a novel simply identified with his name, Mycroft Holmes (2015), by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. Like several previous Mycroft volumes, this one jumps back to Mycroft’s formative years in the 1870s. (I understand that Abdul-Jabbar is also associated with an additional Mycroft comic book, but I haven’t—and won’t—read it, as it’s apparently set in some sort of Alternate Universe.)
The most recent specifically Mycroft novel is Mycroft Holmes and the Adventure of the Desert Wind (2017), the first of a proposed new series by Janina Woods. This, too, is an Alternate Universe Mycroft adventure, wherein he has gone from being “M,” the leader of the British Secret Service, to an 1890s James Bond, a slim, active field agent with mad martial arts skills as well as other interests. This plot borders on science fiction, and thus I won’t be reading it either, but it does carry on the tradition of standalone Mycroft Holmes novels to complement tales about his better-known brother, Sherlock.
There have been other Mycroft adventures—one posits that he was Jack the Ripper, for goodness’ sake! But one thing is certain. Mycroft Holmes was a very interesting person, and more of his adventures will certainly be revealed in the future.