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Mycroft – The unwanted Holmes

Mycroft Holmes is an incredibly popular character from the Sherlock Holmes universe and it is not unreasonable to say that, of late, this is almost entirely down to his depiction by Mark Gatiss in Sherlock. In no other dramatization I can think of has Mycroft Holmes enjoyed such a presence (not even Granada's). Most screen adaptations have tended to mirror the canon and have Mycroft as little more than a character making the occasional fleeting appearance.

Mark Gatiss as the modern Mycroft
In the original canon of stories Mycroft features twice. Firstly in The Greek Interpreter and, secondly, in The Bruce-Partington Plans. Arthur Conan Doyle used Mycroft sparingly just as he did with Professor Moriarty, Inspector Baynes and private investigator Barker. All of these characters had intelligence levels close to, if not on an actual par, with Sherlock and Arthur Conan Doyle recognised the danger in this (or was made to).

The danger, simply put, was that the magnificence of Sherlock Holmes depended in no small measure on him being special and superior to those around him. A single genius is impressive but who notices one genius amongst many? Conan Doyle recognised that Sherlock Holmes’ uniqueness was one of his major selling points and if he removed that uniqueness he risked diluting his popularity and, by extension, the income to be derived. When Mycroft appears it is to do little more than bring a case to his younger brother’s attention. Moriarty, Baynes and Barker all appear in the guise of intellectual competition (of sorts) be that friendly or unfriendly in its form.

The Canonical Mycroft, Charles Gray's Mycroft and Mark Gatiss' Mycroft

It may surprise you to learn that Mycroft Holmes was disliked from the start in some quarters. His first appearance (The Greek Interpreter) was published in September 1893. That very same month a brief review of the story appeared in The Glasgow Herald of September 23rd.

The Strand Magazine suggests a new terror to life. Sherlock Holmes has developed a brother more wonderful than himself. Now, one can tolerate Sherlock because he has been our guide, philosopher, and entertaining companion for so many months, and he is undeniably clever. But he is too clever to live, and he has no business to have a brother. We resent Mycroft Holmes, and think Mr Conan Doyle has committed a great tactical and literary mistake in introducing him. The current story from the Diary of a Doctor is so highly improbable as to be very entrancing.


You will note that only the last sentence passes any judgement on the story as a whole. Perhaps it was this reaction to Mycroft that led to Conan Doyle having him as an active character in only one other story. Perhaps this reaction to a character as clever as Sherlock led to him not keeping any other really intelligent characters around for more than one appearance?



For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

2 comments:

  1. Great quote for the Glasgow Herald. It is always fascinating to read contemporary reactions to the Canon; how in-the-moment opinions can be so very different to those of us who have lived with a set Canon all our lives.

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    1. There's so much amazing material in the old newspaper archives. I cannot believe that more people don't delve into them.

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