''The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes'' Essay

''The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes'' Essay

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The title of Marcel Theroux's second novel is an exquisitely calculated tease; sibling rivalry in high-achieving literary families has been a hot subject since long before William James described Henry as his ''younger and shallower and vainer brother.'' Mycroft Holmes is Sherlock's older, smarter, lazier brother, a shadowy but nonetheless vivid occasional presence in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. (He has a nebulous but potent role as ''the most indispensable man in the country,'' according to Sherlock. Among the only things that are certain about him, Theroux reminds us, ''are that he is very fat, and a member of the Diogenes Club, where conversation is forbidden.'')

It is hard for the reader not to jump to a quick conclusion about the subject of the novel, given the highly public sibling rivalry exhibited by the older generation of the Theroux family. Marcel is Paul Theroux's son; a section of his father's uproariously entertaining book about V. S. Naipaul, ''Sir Vidia's Shadow,'' elaborated with what seemed like relish on the theme that one brother is always the other's literary inferior. Many readers felt that these passages drew on feelings about Alexander Theroux, Paul's writer brother. And then there is the fact that Marcel's own brother, Louis, has achieved fame in Britain (where both of them were brought up) as a host of TV documentaries. As Sherlock Holmes might have said, these are murky waters, Watson.

Having set up expectations with its title, ''The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes'' then plays with them mercilessly. Marcel Theroux's subtle and intelligent book is subtitled ''A Paper Chase,'' and while that undersells the novel's underlying seriousness and sadness, it does catch the way the reader is led on, an...

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... your neighbors than try to make friends and discover you actually hate each other.'' That is deeply accurate, and it is matched by observations from the other side of the Atlantic. Patrick's lawyer on Ionia had ''that odd American gift -- or is it a kind of insensitivity? -- of talking all the time and still seeming able to form a distinct and favorable impression of your personality.'' The jokes are good, not least in their timing. Patrick's education had left him with ''a range of almost wholly useless abilities -- basic conversational Latin from the seminary, good Samoan, a degree in English literature.'' The title tease turns out to be the best joke of all, since the book does eventually wind up being about brothers, and also about the ways in which ''the imagination roams widely over the world until it finds a predicament that reflects its own secret agonies.''

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