Imagine two men. The first: a mastermind who lives for solving pretty little problems. Eccentric and amoral, he sees the truth through the fog of that distant Victorian London. The second: a war veteran from Afghanistan, tough, scarred, addicted to danger. He’s a faithful sidekick and chronicler. Admittedly, I didn’t mention a deerstalker or pipe, but nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson come to mind.
This review was originally published at Blogcritics.
Except that that’s not who I mean. That description applies equally to Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, is mysteriously – and tantalizingly – absent from most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was created by Doyle to kill off Holmes in The Final Problem, turns out to be beyond the events of The Valley of Fear, and appears in none of the other fifty-eight tales. Holmes only encounters him once (with the exception of that fateful meeting at Reichenbach Falls), and Watson himself never actually meets the Professor. In fact, the only time the reader actually “sees” Moriarty is in a narrative by Holmes later related by Watson. That makes Moriarty a rather tantalizingly mysterious blank slate.
Kim Newman has courageously taken up the challenge of filling up that slate in his book Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles. He’s put together a delightful series of stories – tied together into a novel – narrated by Moriarty’s right hand man, Sebastian Moran. The idea of Moriarty and Moran as a sort of dark-double duo of Holmes and Watson, with Moran recording Moriarty’s crimes, is not entirely new – there are hints of it in Doyle’s stories (referred to as the Canon), and in a few of the more obscure Holmes movies. But never has it been developed to this extent, and never (with the exception of a particular Neil Gaiman story), as delightfully as this.
These stories don’t take place in Holmes’ world, but in a mirror reflection of it. Everything is exactly the same, except that Moriarty’s quite literally replaced Holmes. Newman has carefully, methodically disassembled the edifice that is the Canon, added a few crooked building blocks of his own, and reassembled the entire thing in a skewed, backwards, disturbing and utterly brilliant way. If Neil Gaiman can be described by a reviewer as a demonic chef, then Newman is certainly a possessed architect.
Newman’s Moriarty makes tea, plots dastardly deeds, drives his enemy to lunacy (or, as the latter would prefer, “moonacy”), and avoids being a walking cliché – all before breakfast. The stories are absolutely stunning in their inventiveness, the crimes are ingenious, and the humor is literally breath-taking. Yet they contain just enough reverence for Doyle’s originals. Particularly remarkable is “The Red Planet League,” a play on “The Red-Headed League” and perfect for fulfilling one’s daily humor needs. The prose – which I can’t call “stunning” because there must be a limit to how many times that word can appear in a review – is sizzling, engaging, witty, and punctuated by particularly remarkable passages, such as the following:
“They’ve called him the Napoleon of Crime, but that’s just putting what he is, what he does, in a cage. He’s not a criminal, he is crime itself, sin raised to an art form, a church with no religion but rapine, a God of Evil. Pardon my purple prose, but there it is. Moriarty brings things out in people, things from their depths.
He poured me tea.”
He poured me tea.”
And, of course, the book has its fair share of witty variations on famous Canonical lines: “To Professor Moriarty, she was always that bitch,” and “the worst and wildest man I have ever known.”
There’s only one downfall to the novel, which is more of a small bump in the road than a pitfall, and that’s the question of the intended audience: avid Sherlockians or casual readers? The book is packed with clever references to minor Doyle villains and other Victorian literary works. The avid Sherlockian likes nothing better than a puzzle to solve, and finding these well-hidden hints to familiar works is like getting an early birthday present – except that the endnotes give it away. Answers at the back of the book may make the story clearer for the casual reader, but it certainly spoils the fun for the Sherlockian. And yet, to enjoy the clever, provocative twists on the Canon Newman offers at the deepest level, the detailed knowledge of a Sherlockian is necessary. For example, Moriarty presents himself as a scientist, juxtaposing himself to a conjurer who dabbles in deductions. It’s a clever contrast to Doyle’s Holmes, who is often referred to as a magician or wizard for the deductive skills that make him a beloved hero. Presumably the Sherlockian who catches this twist would know about the conundrum of why Watson had never heard of Moriarty in The Final Problem? Yet this explanation, like many others, finds its way into an endnote. But that’s a minor complaint, really.
In a world overcrowded with Holmes adaptations, pastiches, sequels, prequels, and re-writes, true gems can be as rare as the Pearl of the Borgias, and this is truly one of those gems that Moriarty himself would create a dastardly plot to obtain. There’s much of the Canon Newman left untouched, and one hopes that one day, more ink may flow from his pen onto paper…