Mycroft & Sherlock The Empty Birdcage by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse is the third book in a series. I have not read the previous two books. Therefore, my review should be seen as a stand-alone and not as a review of the entire series.
Two story lines and two sets of detectives
The Empty Birdcage starts in London, England. The year is 1873. On April 1, Mycroft Holmes is prepared for surgery. He is twenty-seven years old and worries what will become of his reputation if the public knows that he had heart surgery. However, his condition is rapidly deteriorating. He thinks about his younger brother Sherlock and before the morphine kicks in, he asks the surgeon if he cleaned his hands and elbows as per his instructions.
One month later, we meet Sherlock who is suffering at Cambridge as he’d rather be investigating the eight serial murders that have Great Britain holding its breath. The victims vary in age, gender, profession, and social and financial status. But, they do have things in common. There do not seem to be any obvious traces of violence or trauma. At first glace they could have died of natural causes. And, they all have a note: The Fire Four Eleven!
After Mycroft is recovered, he finds himself investigating a kidnapping. Deshi Hai Lin, the father of Ai Lin, asks Mycroft to help find his daughter’s fiance, Bingwen Shi. Ai Lin is apparently the love who either got away or Mycroft never expressed his feelings for her. As I did not read the previous two books, I do not know if she plays a role in those books. Here, she is the one he wishes to spend the rest of his life with and to be asked to find her fiance, is painful. But he accepts.
Two storylines unfold, the hunt for the kidnapped fiance and the serial killer. We see two sets of detectives investigating. Mycroft is assisted, protected, and accompanied by his best friend Cyrus Douglas. Sherlock is offended to be accompanied by Mycroft’s carriage driver Huan, but quickly learns that Huan is a master observer who has skills that save him.
As the book has been out since September 2019, there are many reviews online about the plot. So I am only adding my opinion here.
It is nice to see a more human side of Mycroft. What he feels and thinks, how he tries to keeps his emotions at bay, and reluctantly but dutifully takes care of his younger brother. His need for privacy, order, the luxury and sanctuary of his own home, it makes him a well-rounded character. Maybe even more so than the Mycroft in the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock is his impatient all-over-the-place self who sets aside everything to focus on a case. His deductive skills are sharp and he learns to appreciate Huan.
I like the part near the end where Mycroft explains his case to Edward Cardwell in the War Office. It gives a good overview of the case, the weighing of national and personal interests, and the acceptance of consequences. However, the letter at the end of the book feels forced, like a prelude to a fourth book.
Minor critique: the way that Cyrus escapes when he is captured reminds me of a Cirque du Soleil act. This part in the story doesn’t match the overal tone of the book which is devoid of graphic descriptions. But that isn’t my major point of critique.
Both story-lines end in a disappointing manner. Mycroft’s ending of the case was good until the letter at the end of the book. It takes away the logic and feels unnecessary. The ending of Sherlock’s case is even worse. It is his case where Mycroft and Sherlock finally put their brain powers together. And how it ends, is very disappointing. Let me explain why.
The book opens with a killer stalking, watching his next victim. Then, we learn that there already were eight murders in Great Britain. However, throughout the book we learn little about the killer, their motives, their preparations, and how they arranged their logistics.
We only see parts of this through the deductions that Sherlock makes in his investigations. However, when it becomes clear that the motive is revenge, we learn nothing about the victim who is avenged. Nothing, not even a name.
There is this huge build-up of finally confronting a serial killer who must be stopped. And when they find him, it is over in less than two pages.
This serial killer has obviously researched their killing method. We do not learn why they selected this convoluted method over other methods. We never get inside the killer’s brain. We never see a train of thought, a breakdown of emotions, a regrouping to fortify themselves to carry on, or even a reflection about the beloved victim.
While the authors did a great job exploring the characters of Mycroft & Sherlock, they do not deliver in the ending of the plots. The books feels anticlimactic.
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