Here’s the thing about siblings: they can be your best friend or your arch-nemesis, dependent on the situation, and sometimes can seem like both at once. Sometimes they might fall in that murky middle ground between Watson and Moriarty, but rarely, and more often in adulthood than when we’re kids. These are the people who possess the details of our most embarrassing moments – and who will make them available to the highest bidder unless you make it worth their while. Professional extortionists have nothing on a really determined sibling, let me tell you. Older ones usually like to tell you what to do; younger ones just want to make you insane. If you have one of each, God help you. (I can get by with that comment, since I’m pretty sure neither my older brother or my younger sister actually read this blog. Hi guys, if you’re actually peeking for the first time ever. No, I don’t usually cast aspersions on your character here. I save that for Facebook.) They’re also, more often than not, the people who you know best in the world and are the most direct links you have to your past.
It takes Doyle two novels and twenty short stories to clue us in that Holmes has any family at all. Prior to this, our best theory about Holmes’ upbringing probably involved him springing to life fully formed, with his Inverness cloak and deerstalker, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. We have a laundry list of Holmes’ specialties and weaknesses provided to us by Watson, but we have very little personal information otherwise about the Great Detective. Our well of knowledge on that doesn’t really expand until we get to “The Greek Interpreter,” when circumstances cause Watson to be introduced to Holmes’ one and only known relation, the illustrious – and frightfully lazy – Mycroft.
And our introduction is fairly brief, really. He plays intermediary between Holmes and the eponymous Greek interpreter – Mr. Melas – who has unexpectedly and by no fault of his own gotten mixed up in some pretty shady business involving a brother and sister being held against their will and the sort of men that are willing to kill to further their ends. Melas asks his friend, Mycroft (acquaintance is probably a better word; the Holmes boys don’t really make friends, Watson excepting) to enlist his younger brother’s assistance in finding the men that kidnapped him. That’s the only purpose Mycroft serves in this narrative: we have to wait until “The Bruce-Partington Plans” to really get to know Mycroft and the important job that’s only really hinted at over the course of this story.
We are given a few bites of information, though: that Mycroft is likely smarter (this from Holmes’ own mouth), is definitely lazier, and is certainly larger than his “little” brother. He is just as interested in puzzles, but prefers to solve them from his armchair at the Diogenes Club – which we’re told he’s a founder of – than by going out and doing any sort of active investigation. He leaves the legwork to Sherlock. The two are very competitive, as siblings sometimes are. Within a minute of introducing himself to Watson, Mycroft says, “By the way, Sherlock, I expected to see you round last week to consult me over that Manor House case. I thought you might be a little out of your depth.” An even better example of this is seen in the exchange between the Holmes’ a few paragraphs later as they try to out-deduce each other while people-watching out the window of the Diogenes Club’s Stranger Room:
“An old soldier, I perceive,” said Sherlock.
“And very recently discharged,” remarked the brother.
“Served in India, I see.”
“And a non-commissioned officer.”
“Royal Artillery, I fancy,” said Sherlock.
“And a widower.”
“But with a child.”
“Children, my dear boy, children.”
They then take turns explaining how they came to each conclusion for Watson’s benefit, or just to show off. Probably mostly the latter.
TV and movie adaptions love to play with Mycroft, though I think the BBC production of “Sherlock” might give Mark Gatiss’ version the most screen time and narrative impact the character’s ever had. He’s not the only Mycroft to be given more than a passing cameo, though. Christopher Lee played both Holmes’ siblings in different productions, taking on Mycroft in Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” Charles Gray took a turn at the role on film in “The Seven Percent Solution” and then opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock in six episodes of the Granada series. Richard E. Grant had his own go at the older brother in 2002’s questionable “Sherlock: Case of Evil.” Stephen Fry, who claims to have been the youngest person ever inducted into the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, took Mycroft for a spin in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows.” And, of course, Rhys Ifan’s Mycroft in CBS’ “Elementary” has been a great source of angst and trouble for his baby brother, and for Joan Watson.
I think the reason Mycroft is so fun – and necessary – to adapt is that he brings a humanness to Sherlock that Watson’s observations about the cold reasoning machine lack. He is the link that binds Sherlock to the world. Sherlock didn’t burst into the world with magnifying glass in hand and a pipe already clamped between his teeth. He was born, just like the rest of us. From Mycroft’s existence we can infer the existence of Sherlock Holmes’ childhood without having seen or heard it, to paraphrase the detective himself. Once upon a time, he was a little boy who did little boy things and dreamed little boy dreams and had no plans necessarily to grow up to be a walking Analytical Engine someday. Plus, it’s really nice to know there is someone, somewhere in the world who can knock his ego down a notch or two and remind him that, no, he isn’t the smartest man in the world. And the banter is always fun.
There’s a bit of symmetry in this story, though I’m not sure Doyle intended there to be. We are introduced to Sherlock’s brother in the same story that involves a brother and sister who find themselves wrapped up in a horrible business. It takes the intervention of another pair of siblings – one directly, one indirectly – to bring the whole horrible thing to light. Doyle could have made the victims husband and wife, father and daughter, cousins, or any other reasonable combination that fit the role he needed them to play. Instead, he picked a brother and sister. I don’t know if it really means anything, but I find it interesting.
I’ve probably mentioned before, but my Mycroft hasn’t made it to his predecessor’s inactive state quite yet. He’s still a young man, and while he definitely has lazy tendencies, he prefers to be in the thick of things as much as his position allows. Likes a little bit of adventure now and then, you see. Eventually, his metabolism has to slow down, especially with the way his aunt feeds him, and his tendency to want to laze about and look intelligent is going to catch up to him, but he seems to think that’s what middle age is for – getting fat and boring. He can’t let Charlotte have all the fun, can he? And while this Mycroft definitely enjoys tormenting and teasing and one-upping his sibling just as much as the rest, he is also vastly protective of her. There is nothing he wouldn’t do to keep her safe, even if it means lying to her to do so.
Or, you know, just threatening a certain doctor within an inch of his life, like all big brothers do.