Possessing deductive powers exceeding even those of his younger brother, Mycroft is nevertheless incapable of performing detective work similar to that of Sherlock as he is unwilling to put in the physical effort necessary to bring cases to their conclusions.
...he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points...
Though Sherlock initially tells Watson that Mycroft audits books for some government departments, he later reveals that Mycroft's true role is more substantial. While Conan Doyle's stories leave unclear what Mycroft Holmes' exact position is in the British government, Sherlock Holmes says that "Occasionally he is the British government [...] the most indispensable man in the country." He apparently serves as a sort of human computer:
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 has appeared or been mentioned in four stories by Doyle: "The Greek Interpreter", "The Final Problem", "The Empty House" and "The Bruce-Partington Plans". While he does occasionally exert himself in these stories on behalf of his brother, he on the whole remains a sedentary problem-solver, providing solutions based on seemingly no evidence and trusting Sherlock to handle any of the practical details. In fact, Mycroft's own lack of practicality is a severe handicap despite his inductive talents: in "The Greek Interpreter", his blundering approach to the case nearly costs the client his life.
Mycroft resembles Sherlock, but is described in "The Greek Interpreter" as being "a much larger and stouter man". In "The Bruce-Partington Plans", the following description is given:
Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.
Mycroft spends most of his time at the Diogenes Club, which he co-founded. Sherlock's birth date is given as 1854 in His Last Bow, and if Mycroft was "seven years his (Sherlock's) senior", then Mycroft would have been born in 1847.
In other media
Mycroft Holmes has been portrayed many times in film, television, and radio adaptations of the Holmes stories.
In the 1950s radio series starring John Gielgud as Sherlock Holmes, Gielgud's own brother, Val Gielgud, played the part.
In the BBC radio dramatisations with Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley, Mycroft was played at various times by Malcolm Graeme, Keith Williams, Felix Felton and – in "The Empty House" – by Carleton Hobbs himself.
John Hartley played Mycroft in "The Greek Interpreter" on October 21, 1992, "The Bruce-Partington Plans" on January 24, 1994 and "The Retired Colourman" on March 29, 1995 in the BBC Radio broadcasts starring Clive Merrison as Sherlock and Michael Williams as Watson.
Film and television
The first film appearance of Mycroft Holmes was in the 1922 film The Bruce Partington Plans, where he was played by Lewis Gilbert.
In the Billy Wilder-directed film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), which starred Robert Stephens as Sherlock, Mycroft was played by Christopher Lee (who also played Sherlock Holmes in other productions before and since). In this film, which purports to show the 'real' people behind Watson's dramatised accounts, Mycroft is nearly unrecognisable: whippet-thin and not notably indolent. He is also depicted as either the head or at least a senior operative of the British secret service, for which the Diogenes Club is a front.
Charles Gray assumed the character in both the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and four episodes of Granada Television's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gray's first two television appearances were adaptations of the two stories in which Mycroft actually appears (The Greek Interpreter and The Bruce-Partington Plans). In the two other appearances, the character was used to replace another for various reasons:
The Golden Pince-Nez – Mycroft was used in place of Watson due to Edward Hardwicke being unavailable.
The Mazarin Stone – Mycroft was used in place of Sherlock owing to Jeremy Brett's ill health.
In the 2010 BBC television series Sherlock, series co-creator Mark Gatiss plays Mycroft. In this modernized version, Sherlock and Mycroft exhibit smouldering animosity toward each other (which Dr. Watson characterizes as "sibling rivalry" and Mycroft himself refers to as a "childish feud"). Mycroft, however, bears Sherlock's insults with aplomb (including references to his weight, such as queries about how his diet is going) and beyond the competitive friction he is deeply concerned about his brother and tracks him constantly. When Mycroft tells Watson he holds a minor position in the British government, Sherlock interjects: "He is the British government, when he's not too busy being the British secret service or the CIA on a freelance basis." In the episode The Reichenbach Fall Mycroft is seemingly tricked by Jim Moriarty into providing information about Sherlock's past – thus allowing Moriarty to create the deception that Sherlock is a fraud.
Mycroft was played by Rhys Ifans in the season 2 premiere of Elementary. For the series, Mycroft is a highly successful London restaurateur. There's a large degree of animosity between the two, as Mycroft reveals that Sherlock seduced Mycroft's fiancee to prove that she was only after the family fortune. He's also the recent recipient of a bone marrow transplant, as Watson deduces from the scars on Mycroft's wrists. Mycroft returns in Episode 7 of the same season, seeking his brother's help with a case, and in another episode is shown trying to coerce Sherlock to return to England.
In a two-part episode of BraveStarr, after falling through a time warp at Reichenbach Falls, Holmes is introduced to his great- great-grandniece, the lovely and capable Scotland Yard agent Mycroft Holmes.
Novels and short stories
The character has been used many times in works that are not adaptations of Holmes stories:
In Jasper Fforde's series of books about Thursday Next, Mycroft is revealed to be Thursday's uncle, having escaped into fiction and taken up residence in the Sherlock Holmes series to escape the evil Goliath Corporation.
He was the main character in a series of mystery novels by the author Quinn Fawcett.
He is a recurring character in the Mary Russell mystery series by Laurie R. King, which feature a retired Sherlock Holmes as a major character. Mycroft is portrayed as a senior figure in the British Secret Service, who occasionally calls on Russell and Holmes for assistance in specific cases.
A young Mycroft Holmes is the protagonist of a mystery-adventure "edited" by Michael P. Hodel and Sean M. Wright, Enter the Lion: A Posthumous Memoir of Mycroft Holmes (published in hardcover by Hawthorn Books in 1979 in the U.S. and by JM Dent & Sons Ltd. in 1980 in London (ISBN 0-460-04483-4) and in paperback by Playboy Press in 1980). The action takes place in 1875, ten years after the end of the American Civil War, at the time when Mycroft Holmes was a minor official in the Foreign Office. Mycroft is aided by his younger brother Sherlock, Victor Trevor (who appears in Doyle's tale "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott"), and an adventurer known as "Captain Jericho", a mysterious former slave. They band together in an effort to prevent an attempt by former Confederate officers to involve the British government in a scheme to overthrow the United States government. The story also provides an explanation as to the antagonism between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.
Mycroft has a small but extremely important role in Ray Walsh's novel The Mycroft Memoranda, published in London by Andre Deutsch, 1984 (ISBN 0-233-97582-9), in which Sherlock Holmes, at the request of Major Henry Smith, Acting Commissioner for the City of London, becomes involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.
The novel Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth suggests that Oscar Wilde's friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle led Doyle to create Mycroft as a caricature of Wilde: mentally brilliant, but indolent and lazy.
The award-winning short story by Robert J. Sawyer, "You See But You Do Not Observe", portrays Mycroft Holmes' namesake involved in pulling Sherlock and Watson into the year 2096 to solve a scientific mystery.
In the Enola Holmes series, Mycroft is the official legal guardian of their much younger sister, Enola, after the mysterious departure of their mother on her daughter's 14th birthday. Rather than submit to his wish for her to be sent to boarding school to conform to contemporary feminine social mores, Enola instead runs away to secretly become a private detective in London while eluding her brothers. Through the series, Mycroft is steadfastly determined to capture her while Sherlock gradually grows to respect her considerable talents and begins to understand her reasons for her defiance. However, it is Mycroft who suspects that Enola may well be determined to become an adult colleague in his brother's profession, a notion Sherlock finds difficult to accept.
In the story Whitechapel Rose, by Lorelei Shannon, in Jordan K. Weisman's anthology of short stories set in the Shadowrun Universe Into the Shadows, Mycroft is revealed to be legendary among deckers (an in game term for futuristic hackers).
Mycroft is also sometimes referred to less directly in popular culture:
A parallel can be observed in the TV series Monk in the connection between fictional obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk and his more intelligent, though more neurotic and agoraphobic brother Ambrose. Like Mycroft, Ambrose is more intelligent than his brother but is less willing to investigate (though this is because he is agoraphobic). Ambrose, however, does not need to see a crime scene as Adrian does.
Mycroft was parodied in the Solar Pons series with a character named Bancroft Stoneham Pons, who was also seven years older than the leading protagonist.
Mycroft Holmes was the inspiration for the name of the silent assistant quiz master of BBC Radio 4's programme Brain of Britain. The phrase "Mycroft is shaking his head" became well known to listeners. Ian Gillies (who was known as Mycroft) died in 2002 and was replaced by a character known as "Jorkins".
The character of the Marquis of London in Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories, while mostly based on Nero Wolfe, also has elements of Mycroft, in that he is a government official related to the detective and, while just as intelligent as his relative, has little interest in using his intellect to solve crimes.
First series of seaQuest DSV, in the episode "Photon Bullet", a reformed computer hacker used the handle "Mycroft" while at an underwater telecommunications node.
British writer Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse series of books, wrote a Sherlock Holmes short story "A Case of Mis-Identity", part of a collection of short stories published under the title "Morse's Greatest Mystery", in which Watson's practical knowledge of the circumstances of a case outwits both Sherlock and Mycroft.
Agatha Christie in The Big Four introduced "Achille Poirot, the brother of Hercule Poirot". This is considered a deliberate parody of Mycroft Holmes. (In one passage, Hercule Poirot actually says: "Don't you know that every detective has a brother who is smarter but less practical than himself?") Later in the book, Christie gives the impression that in fact "Achille" was Poirot himself in disguise. The Holmes brothers are mentioned again in The Labors Of Hercules, in which one of Poirot's friends teases him about his unusual Christian name. He jokes that Mrs. Poirot and Mrs. Holmes must have collaborated when naming their sons.
A resemblance has been noted between Mycroft Holmes and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe; it has been suggested that they may have been related. There no evidence that Stout himself intended this to be the case. The best-known form of this hypothesis — popularised by William S. Baring-Gould, who wrote "biographies" of both Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe — holds that Wolfe is the offspring of Sherlock and Irene Adler.
At one point it was planned for Gregory House (who is based on Sherlock Holmes) to have an elder brother who was based on Mycroft. Stephen Fry (who was the comedic partner of Hugh Laurie) was to play him but was unable, due to other commitments. Fry did take on the role of Mycroft in the sequel to the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film.
In the TV series Numb3rs episode Angels and Devils, Larry Fleinhardt, played by Peter MacNicol, says: "I have rather always fancied myself more as a Mycroft than a Dr. Watson." He expands upon this reference in the series finale when he assumes the role of math/science expert for the FBI in place of Charlie Eppes saying, "...like Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes, I prefer to do the conceptualizing, leaving the grunt work to others."
In Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga series Embalming -The Another Tale of Frankenstein-, Asuhit Richter goes to the Diogenes Club in London to meet one of the club's founders and his client "Mike Roft", a play on Mycroft, who is also a high-standing government official. Mike remarks that "if you are looking for someone, my younger brother is quite good at that type of thing" and has him locate Dr. Peabody and Fury Flatliner. Only the younger brother's silhouette is shown, but it is obviously that of Sherlock Holmes.
In the Honor Harrington novel A Rising Thunder, the name Mycroft is used as the code designation for a new Manticoran missile fire control system to be deployed for system defense, based somewhat upon the Havenites' 'Moriarty' system (the name of which is a reference to Professor Moriarty).