Tales of mystery, murder and with as much bloody intrigue as the British can muster, Sherlock Holmes sets out undercover in Chicago 1912, coming up against the Mafioso, an Irish spy ring, a young Al Capone, all while enjoying such provincial delicacies at Cafe de Champion as golden fried chicken and ham hocks.
Much of the book, “Anomalous: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featuring Jack Johnson and Alphonse Capone,” is told through the eyes of America’s first Black heavyweight boxer.
Being tailed, Holmes, disguised as Altamont, sticks out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood and takes cover at a soul food restaurant, where the owner, Jack Johnson, senses the out of place Brit is “a kindred spirit.” But, it’ hard to pin down exactly what really brings him to the “colored” part of town. Somehow, he seems trustworthy enough.
One thing is for sure, for the first time in history, Holmes is hanging out with the brothers.
After a lively exchange between the two about Johnson’s world renown promiscuity, good boxing conversation ensues, which is about the only thing that seems to transcend race. Johnson invites the affable Altamont, who has already demonstrated his love of soul food, out for a night at the opera. From there on out, it’s hard to tell exactly who is protecting whom the most.
For a full feel of the times and a backgrounder, local author Samuel Williams researched the racial climate of the post-Victorian era in both England and America through the persona of Jack Johnson. Johnson was the nation’s first Black heavyweight champion with a curious affinity for marrying and sleeping with many white women, not necessarily in that order.
“In 1910, 1912, brothers didn’t do that,” Williams said. “They were so mad at him that they created the White-Slave Traffic Act, also called the Mann Act, and Johnson was convicted.”
Johnson was treading dangerous territory, Williams writes, “But for colored people of that day, a sinister shadow prevailed over the landscape, and nationally there unfurled something hideous and unprecedented. In 1911, there were sixty heinous acts of lynching of colored Americans, followed in
1912 by sixty-one more. Colored people in the United States were under siege and now lived in constant fear for their lives.”
Historical fact is that Johnson’s former lover refused to testify against him, and the court case fell apart. Not long after, another lover testified and Johnson was convicted for transporting his soon-to-be wife across state lines, which led him to flee to Canada. Williams then takes the national boxing champ a fictional step further in the book, placing him as a fugitive in London alongside Holmes.
Over the years, Williams has read five of the Sherlock mysteries, including a contemporary “The Seven Percent Solution” by Nicholas Myers.
“Holmes was a cocaine addict. It got so bad in the seven percent solution that Watson sets up an elaborate trap. In my book, Holmes wasn’t using; he had already been cured,” Williams said, referring to Watson’s efforts get Holmes to Sigmund Freud, who eventually cured him of the addiction.
To prove solidarity, Altamont initiates a blood brother oath with Johnson and Dixie, and a prick of the fingers when he notes that all blood is red, and all men are equal. Both Johnson and Dixie realize that Holmes isn’t the average Brit.
At one point, Altamont protects Johnson from a Jim Crow murder when he stages a fake hanging and the good guys actually win.
Throughout the pages, themes weave between Johnson’s connections with a supportive Italian mob, his love of the European arts as well as its women, and incessant racism that he beats down with as much brains as brawl.
But Williams also brings a bigger historical reality about the real life Johnson to the surface.
“Johnson had his way with white folks,” Williams writes, “setting the rules and telling them the way things were going to be. And they paid him good money to do it. Altamont was getting a first-hand look at why white America hated Johnson.”
Williams has already been tapped for the sequel.
“He’s blended the compelling and provocative stories of the life and feats of these two legendary figures into a well-crafted, riveting, and always readable mix of historical fact and imaginative fiction,” writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his endorsement. “Williams’ Anomalous is a must read for all who appreciate the creative mix of controversial fictional and true life characters with the events in their lives that made history.”
The book wasn’t an overnight gig. He started in 2003, put it away a couple of years, dusted it off and worked at it some more, put it away, and pulled it out last year for final revisions. Now, he is part of a stable of family of writers in England that spin only Sherlockian mysteries. It’s the only Holmes book with an Afrocentric twist that he knows of.
Inspiration for the plot was most surely born of his long time love-hate relationship with the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Throughout the Sherlock series, only two Black characters ever appeared: Steve Dixie as the male rogue thief, and Lucy Hebron, the mixed-race child who spent her childhood tragically mulatto.
Williams puts Dixie with Holmes and Jack Johnson, who brings them both through some tight spots and where Dixie, the reformed ruffian, steps up to be a man. He risks his life to save a life, looking more like a right hand of Holmes than the villain of old.
In the end, Williams has set out to give the world something that, for many Black men, is truly a work of fiction, but rewriting literary history with an Afrocentric twist could finally set the record straight.
“When I was reading Sherlock Holmes in high school, it really bothered me that the only Black male character was a criminal,” Williams said. “I wanted to give Dixie redeeming qualities.”