The Napoleon of Crime

Coming across John Gardner's Moriarty (2008) was a bit of a surprise. I'd heard of his previous Moriarty books from the '70s but never read them. Then I'd sort of all forgotten about them, as in those bygone and faraway days ordering books on the net wasn't an option. And now there was a spanking new one. Brilliant.

Fascinating character, Moriarty. Possibly because he's quite a shadowy figure, used very very sparsely by Doyle in his Holmes tales. In The Final Problem he makes his sinister, coldly menacing entrance - and in the same tale he makes his spectacular exit as well. He is never actually seen by Watson - what little we hear of him is told by Holmes to Watson, and by default, to the reader. Moriarty is a shadow lurking in the fog. He is omnipresent, well-nigh omnipotent and always almost inhumanly absent.

In physical appearance he is quite distinguished, as well befits an academic. "He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion." The description Holmes gives might, actually, be thought to bear something of a resemblance to himself? The tall gauntness, the bulging forehead, the cold pale cerebralism, the extreme asceticism? "He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them."

Because we know so very little about him we're almost compelled to fill the blanks by ourselves. He's too big a character to be so absent in the Canon. Or is it his absence, or his suspected or even partly sensed presence, that indeed makes him so big?

The description Doyle gives of him is curiously incomplete, even flawed. His name is James Moriarty and he has two brothers - at least one of whom is also called James! Is James, then, a surname? Or do the three brothers share a common name? Rummy, to say the least, jolly rummy.

According to an erudite article by the learned Doylean scholar Owen Dudley Edwards, published in The Journal of The Arthur Conan Doyle Society (Vol. 6: 1995), the name might well hail from Doyle's schooldays at Stonyhurst. There he attended the lessons given by the Jesuits alongside no less than two Moriartys, both winning prizes in mathematics - and one of them a J. Moriarty! James? Would that be too easy an explanation? (It would indeed: when once more I glance through the article I find that Moriarty's name is in fact John and that later he becomes a distinguished barrister, a K.C., and ends up a Lord Justice - there's irony for you!) Fascinatingly enough Edwards also found a Sherlock among the pupils, a Patrick Sherlock, a particularly dim boy according to the Jesuits. So Doyle naming his almost supernaturally clever detective Sherlock may have been nothing less than a huge joke. (Although young Sherlock seems to have had some talent in acting.) But I'm digressing.

In Nicholas Meyer's excellent classic The Seven-Per-Cent Solution Moriarty turns out not to be a master criminal at all, but rather young Sherlock's tutor with whom his mother had an illicit affair, causing Sherlock's father to kill her and then himself. In Robert Lee Hall's pretty nifty Exit Sherlock Holmes Moriarty, like Holmes, turns out to be a genius renegade time traveller from the future. According to an essay by William Leonard in a 1957 issue of The Baker Street Journal (also found in Peter Haining's A Sherlock Holmes Compendium) the horrid professor is no less a personage than count Dracula.

Or was there ever such a man as Moriarty? Because Watson never sees him, because we only ever hear of him, might he not be a pure fabrication? Just something Holmes makes up as he goes a little funny in the head? A distinct possibility, one surmises, especially bearing in mind how like Holmes Moriarty is supposed to be - a veritable black Holmes. Why does he spring Moriarty so suddenly on Watson? Why has Watson never heard of him if he's such a king pin in the London underworld and the great detective's constant adversary? Yet Holmes has never bothered to mention him to Watson, never once. A bit odd, innit? And then Holmes just disappears for three years. How convenient. How bizarre.

Well be that as it may, Moriarty has a huge role in the Sherlockian mythology, particularly when one considers that he's only ever mentioned in three stories: The Final Problem, The Empty House and the novel The Valley of Fear. In the movies, especially the older ones, he's pretty much the stock villain, chewing the carpet and foaming at the mouth like nobody's business.

Gardner approaches Moriarty a little differently, which is quite refreshing really. He strips the character of any and all Sherlockian mythology and makes him a Victorian crime boss. Not a super-villain at all (never mind what the back cover of my paperback claims!). In fact, professor Moriarty isn't even professor Moriarty but his youngest brother the station master who's killed the professor and taken his place - a slightly bizarre twist that. And yes, all three brothers are called James.

Interestingly enough good old Sherlock merits nary a mention in the book. The novel is quite serious and realistic, almost naturalistic, the pace slow and deliberate, the settings elaborate and careful and superbly researched. Gardner knows a lot about Victorian London and its criminal underworld and he's not afraid to let it show. The plot, in short, is as follows: Moriarty has been away for a while and now he returns. Upon his return he finds he has a problem. One of his closest men is a traitor, working for the thoroughly despicable rival crime boss Sir Jack Idell or Idle Jack who's trying to take over Moriarty's turf and businesses.

Some of the subplots are pretty hilarious - like Moriarty's acquiring a dead ringer for the late lamented Prince Albert and using said ringer to produce a set of highly lascivious pornographic pictures with which to blackmail the Queen! Not a really viable idea, as it turns out. Not surprisingly.

But all in all the novel didn't do much for me. The pacing was too slow, the characters lack-luster and plain dull, the plot surprisingly heavy going, almost plodding. I found myself just not caring what happened or to whom. Turned out that Moriarty without Holmes was quite an unglamorous and dull fellow. I might have enjoyed the book as such a great deal more if the protagonist wouldn't have been called Moriarty and if there had been no Holmes connection whatsoever. His shadow is too large, and his presence too powerful even when he isn't present.

Moriarty was published posthumously. Gardner's two previous Moriarty books (Return of Moriarty and Revenge of Moriarty) were published in the '70s. There was supposed to be a trilogy then but he had a row of some sort with his publisher and the third book was never published. Was it, I wonder, written over thirty years ago or quite recently? Would be interesting to know. Haven't read the first two ones, as I already mentioned (don't know if they've ever been re-issued), so I may judge the last book too harshly. Maybe it all makes perfect sense when you've read the entire trilogy. Dunno. Still, bit of a disappointment all said and done.


Ladies in lakes or pools

Dames. They're just shifty. Especially if they're beautiful. Can't trust them in a noir. Not even once. When are fellows gonna learn that? Well, hopefully never. Wouldn't be any noirs if they did, would there?

Been watching a lot of noirs lately. They're pretty good even when they're pretty bad.

Hadn't seen Lady in the Lake, curiously enough. It's one of the earlier Marlowe movies (made in 1947, only a few years after the novel was published) with Robert Montgomery as the director and also, alas and alack, as our hero. Despite that it isn't altogether a worthless movie.

What makes it quite interesting is the direction. Or, actually, the camera work. We see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The camera is the hero, as it were. Now this idea occurred to Welles also before he made his Citizen Kane. His original idea was to make Conrad's Heart of Darkness precisely that way, have the camera see everything Marlow saw, have the camera be Marlow. Then he abandoned the idea. Don't quite know why. But, having seen Montgomery's Lady in the Lake I have a pretty good idea.

For one thing the camera is far too static. When Marlowe is supposed to turn his head the camera turns - extremely clumsily. Secondly the other actors have to act to the camera the whole time - and do it very stiltedly. The camera doesn't react. It gives no feedback. It doesn't inspire the actors to new heights. And it shows. Everything's pretty wooden. Thirdly the shoots are all like it was theatre. Very static. There's never any life in the shots, Marlowe's pretty much just looking at the other actors as they speak or "act". It quickly becomes a bore.

As for the script, I'm not entirely wild about what they've done to the book. There's a romantic love interested that's quite unnecessary. (Even though it's not bad as such, it just doesn't belong.) And the action is all pretty much indoors. I mean, the títle of the book (and the film!) is Lady in the Lake, and Marlowe doesn't even go up to the lake! He just tells us about it in one of the really clumsy voice-overs the film has to revert to in order to avoid any difficult outdoor shots. Filming up at the cabin would have been utterly impossible. (Thus making the entire premise of the movie slightly questionable.)

Still, a very brave experiment. Got to give them credit for that. I have a gut feeling that Welles pulled the plug on his Heart of Darkness because he realised that it just wasn't a viable project. Interesting idea but couldn't be done. Montgomery probably went ahead because he wasn't savvy enough to realise that.

The dames aren't as bad as they could be, or, indeed, as they rightfully should be. The murderess is only seen in two shortish scenes and the other skirt turns out not to be nearly as nasty as she at first appears. So Marlowe has a soppy, wholly gratuitous and quite boring romance with her. Miss Wonderly she ain't, despite a promising start. But neither is Montgomery Bogart. He isn't even Dick Powell (who's best remembered for his musicals), and that's really saying something.

Otto Preminger's Whirlpool (1949) stars Gene Tierney as a wealthy socialite with deep and serious psychological problems. Preminger and Tierney - now there's a splendid combo if ever there was one, as anyone who's seen Laura can attest to. Whirlpool is nowhere nearly as good as that, but it isn't a bad little number as noirs go. Script by Ben Hecht, which always helps.

And Gene Tierney ain't half bad either. No great surprise there.

The villain of the piece, a delightfully smooth and suave José Ferrer (shortly before he became Cyrano, by the way) in whose mouth even butter wouldn't melt, sees to it that Tierney doesn't get prosecuted for a spot of shoplifting she's done. Scandal is avoided but now Tierney's at the mercy of Ferrer. She believes he's trying to blackmail her and writes him a cheque. He plays it very gently, destroys the cheque and hands her the evidence that proves her guilt. He only wants to help her, he says. She wants to believe him. He then hypnotizes her so that she overcomes her sleeping disorder. Then he hypnotizes her some more and frames her for a murder he commits.

The latter part of the movie doesn't quite hold up, doesn't deliver what the first part promises, and the ending's just too easy and far from convincing. It all becomes a muddle, really. Slightly rewritten this might have made a pretty good episode of Columbo. Funny thing is, Ferrer did later appear in an episode of Columbo. Played the villain, obviously.

Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) may be one of Welles' best movies. I like the mood, the imagery, the settings. The story isn't much to write home about but one hardly notices. Or cares. It just doesn't matter. Rita Hayworth is about as beautiful as she's ever been and she is the movie. No question about that.

Nice as well to see a lot of familiar faces from the Mercury era, a lot of them having worked with Welles even in the old radio days. Which makes for a tight cast working together like clockwork.

The final scene with the mirrors is considered a classic. To me it's slightly tacky and far from being genius. It works but is scarcely as profound as the diehard Wellesians would have it. But. It is memorable. It is what everyone remembers about the movie. So I may well be wrong.

Finally there's Detour (1945), a minor cult classic by Edgar G. Ulmer. Here's another one I'd managed to avoid for far too long. Detour is a tight and nasty little shocker, a veritable short story of a movie, only about an hour long. I'd love to say there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in the movie. Truthfully, I'd cut several early scenes as they really don't add anything to the movie and just hold up the action.

Tom Neal plays a New York pianist who's off to L.A. to see his girlfriend. He's short on money so he hitchhikes. One of the drivers goes and dies on him in shady circumstances. Neal figures the cops are going to pin the death on him, so he ditches the body and takes the driver's identity.

On the way he picks up a girl, the aptly named Ann Savage. Big mistake. Turns out the savage Savage recognises the car and knows Neal isn't who he's pretending to be. She starts putting the screws on him. She's as hard as nails and knows there's some way money might be made out of this. Maybe they should sell the car when they get to L.A.

They try to do that. Then Savage discovers something.

She finds out that the driver's father is a rich man and he's on his deathbed. The driver left home in his teens so nobody knows what he looks like today. Neal could pretend to be him and collect - collect big. They'd both be set for life. Neal doesn't want to do that. She pleads with him. He utterly refuses. But Savage has a hold over him, she can spill the beans to the cops - there's no way Neal could convince anyone he didn't kill the driver. Not after he stole his car and identity. Nobody would ever believe him. Not the way Savage would tell it.

They go to their hotel room. They drink. The bicker and argue. Savage makes a pass at Neal. Neal shoots her down. She doesn't much like that. She locks herself in the bedroom to sulk. Neal tries to phone his girlfriend. Savage hears and threatens to call the cops. She snatches the phone and again locks herself in the bedroom. Neal tries to stop her by pulling on the cord.

He accidentally strangles her with the phone cord. Now he really is a murderer. He makes his getaway but knows the game's up. The movie closes with the cops picking him up. He makes no effort to try to escape. What's the use. He never gets a break.

A great little film. Would have been a lot better with a more polished and balanced script but the studio, the tiny PRC, didn't believe in wasting money on foolish things like that. Ulmer did a great job with what little resources he had. Savage is outstanding. The way her mood swings, the way she reacts, the way she spits out her sneering lines, the way she manipulates poor Neal. Savage in Detour is the quintessential film noir dame. What makes the performance so shattering is that it's so real, so believable, so true. This is a real woman. And all the more lethal for it.


Fallet Tulindberg

De senaste månaderna har komponisten jag mest aktivt hållit på med (bortsett från de självklara gubbarna Bach, Händel och Wagner) hetat Erik Tulindberg. Först för att jag tyckte att han var en charmant kuriositet, sedan för att jag snabbt insåg att han är lite sjuttons bra. Och ju mera jag lyssnar på hans verk desto mera begeistrad blir jag.

Namnet kan vara något obekant även för den som är bevandrad i musikens annaler. Erik Tulindberg (1761-1814) är Finlands första komponist. Så heter det och så är det. Hans produktion är liten men av synnerligen hög kvalitet. En del av kompositionerna har försvunnit men kvar har vi sex fräscha stråkkvartetter, en dynamisk violinkonsert och något litet för soloviolin. Åtminstone en violinkonsert är borta, det vet vi.

Det imponerande med Tulindberg är att han komponerade allt han komponerade när han var kring tjugo, lite på. Sex kvartetter, två violinkonserter, och ingen vet väl riktigt hur mycket har gått förlorat. (Det måste finnas ett och annat.) Och allt detta medan han studerade i Åbo (eller kanske man borde säga levde ett glatt studentliv i Åbo?). Han var en munter karl, ytterst god violinist, och tog ej sina studier med alltför mycket allvar. 1782 utexaminerades han och 1784, 23 år gammal, flyttade han till Uleåborg där han blev tjänsteman. Till slut blev han rent av landets finansminister. Stackars människa.

Inga kompositioner efter det. Inte en enda. Han spelade gärna violin, särskilt kvartetter, men det var inte möjligt att göra det alltför ofta i den dystra och avlägsna provinsen där det musikaliska livet var outvecklat. När upptäcktsresanden Giuseppe Acerbi reste till Lappland gjorde han sin resa via Uleåborg och besökte Tulindberg. Acerbi var en splendid violinist han också och herrarna musicerade nöjt tillsammans. Spelade de måhända Tulindbergs egna kvartetter? Det känner vi inte till. En satisfierande tanke dock.

1797 valdes Tulindberg in i Kungliga Musikaliska Akademin, men inte för sina kompositioner. Nej. Utan för att han hade samlat in folkmelodier.

Naturligtvis glömdes han bort. Helt och hållet. Hans produktion var ju trots allt liten och rykte mer eller mindre lokalt. Spelades han utomlands? Åtminstone Stockholm verkar sannolik, men på den tiden hörde man ju ihop.

Och bortglömd förblev han i generationer. Ända tills 20-talet. Det var nämligen först år 1925 som någon upptäckte sex stycken dammiga partiturer på universitetsbiblioteket. Stråkkvartetterna. Först trodde man att Tulindberg hade kopierat någon annans kvartetter. Det var en närmast omöjlig tanke att någon i Finland skulle ha kunnat komponera så intrikata och originella stycken så tidigt som på 1780-talet. Sedan studerade man partiturerna lite noggrannare och insåg att de faktiskt var Tulindbergs egna kompositioner - och landets tidigaste stråkkvartetter. Och styckena var så pass fina att de var fortfarande värda att spelas.

Men. Det fattades en stämma, andra violinen. Detta bevisade, ansågs det, att kompositionerna verkligen hade uppförts och en av musikanterna hade glömt bort att återlämna sina noter. Stämman återskapades. Först av John Rosas och Toivo Haapanen, sedan av Kalevi Aho och till sist av Anssi Mattila. Så nu existerar det tre lite olika versioner av Tulindbergs sex stråkkvartetter. Inte så dumt det heller.

Violinkonserten i sin tur hittades år 1956 i Kungliga Musikaliska Akademiens bibliotek. Så att kanske hade den uppförts i Stockholm?

Det gör nästan ont när man tänker på hur mycket Tulindberg kunde ha komponerat. Och hur fina styckena kunde ha - skulle ha - blivit. Symfonier, operor, konserter. Allt. Men nej. I stället för att bli Den Finländska Musikens Fader valde att bli tjänsteman istället.

Jag vet inte. Kanske hade han inget mer att säga som komponist. Men en riktig konstnär kan väl bara inte sluta sådär? Och leva i det filistinska mörkret och den småborgerliga kylan i över trettio år? Kanske komponerade han en stor mängd saker men rev sedan sönder dem för att de trots allt inte blev så bra som han ville?

Eller, kanske, kommer någon en dag att göra ett sällsamt fynd någonstans i Uleåborgs vildmarker?


Autobiographical Python

One thing in particular struck me while I was reading The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons, very ably edited by Bob McCabe (who to my great surprise and considerable relief turned out not to be the same fellow at all as Graham McCann who wrote a pretty bleak and amazingly unfunny book about Fawlty Towers - something that quite honestly I thought would not be humanly possible): the Conflict.

However did these chaps agree on anything? Cleese seems aloof. He's really got better things to do. It's all a bit silly really. Not to say repetitive and somewhat boring. Chapman's drunk. Mostly. Or then he's off chasing boys. Terry Jones is obsessed with every slight detail and disagrees with anything Cleese says. Cleese is his bete noire. And he just won't give in. And if he does he'll recant tomorrow. Terry Gilliam wants to be heard and taken seriously. I mean, although he is an American, he's still a Python. Idle is the lone wolf. He's always the underdog. Cleese and Chapman write together, so do Jones and Palin. So in a vote they've got two votes automatically, by default. Who's Idle got? Sweet FA, that's who. Palin is just too nice and can't say no. He shrugs away from conflict. That's a problem.

Whenever anyone in the book says anything (the book is composed of quotes), another Python entirely disagrees. "This was terrible" is at once countered with "What a great success". "This was our aim" is countered with "That was never what we tried to do". To the outside eye it very much looks like these fellows never agree on anything. It is indeed a miracle that anything gets done. But it was. And we all know the absolute heights they scaled.

It all spells serious conflict. Now that's important. The internal conflict within the group. It seems to me that it's quite impossible to achieve anything worthwhile if everybody agrees. Conflict guarantees that everybody will do his best. There's no alternative. There's always a lethal competition going on. Second rate ideas just won't cut it. Sometimes even first rate ideas won't do - if someone's feeling bloody.

It works. The results are, notoriously, amazing. The conflicts just guarantee that no substandard material will end up in the series or in any movie. Then, after a while, nothing. The conflicts are too great. There's no cohesion any longer. Everybody's got other things to do. Chapman's dead. (And insists on staying dead.) Palin travels. Jones writes books, makes BBC thingies and directs. Gilliam is in Hollywood. Cleese is in business. Eric Idle is the only one who really wants Python. Who needs Python. The other ones would like to, sort of, but it's simply too difficult. So after The Meaning of Life it all falls apart - and even the Meaning suffers from a lack of polishing the script; it's not a movie at all but a collection of skits, and just because the Pythons couldn't be bothered with finishing the script. So they simply didn't. It's funny, contains some of the best Python sketches, but a movie it isn't.

So the thing that makes them great eventually pulls the group asunder. That's the nature of the beast. Control it or it will destroy you. And in the end it will destroy you no matter what.

Well, they had good innings. We're satisfied.


Science Fiction Treasure Trove

Right ho - this is a splendid one: StarShipSofa.com. Came across it on Facebook, so I guess Facebook isn't always and every time an utter and complete waste of everyone's time. (Or do I express myself too strongly? The verdict is still firmly out on that one.) What it is, is a weekly (!) magazine filled with absolute science fiction goodies. I mean really the best of the best, so to say. But it's not something to be read, it's something to be listened to: a podcast. A podcast magazine, in fact. Now there's a thought. And a good one to boot. It works!

I especially enjoy the publisher, Tony C. Smith, with his broad and boisterous Newcastle accent and his invincible good humour when he does his editorials. Good and intelligent stories are fun so why not let it show?

And the writers! Well there's pretty much everybody who's anybody. Neil Gaiman, Larry Niven, Harlan Ellison, Geoff Ryman, Neal Asher, Elizabeth Bear, Spider Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler. To name but a few. There's a quite heartrending contribution by the incomparable Michael Bishop, a story he wrote after his son was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre. And, on a more positive note, there's a story by talented compatriot Hannu Rajaniemi (kudos, young Sir!) called His Master's Voice. But it would be entirely pointless to catalogue all stories. They're legion and they're solid, so there. Don't just take my word for it, check them out for yourself.

But. Here's the thing. What really annoys me. I mean, honestly. Is there any defence? I mean any? Hardly. Don't think so. Couldn't possibly be. What I want to know is: why haven't I been told about this site earlier? How come, to use a very apt Americanism. Who's to blame? Me? (I'll let that slide just this once.) But, luckily, it don't matter none that I'm a johnny-come-lately, all the previous podcasts are accessible, so no harm done really. Easy to download and a pleasure to hear.

But. There are something like a hundred issues of StarShipSofa out there. So no time to loose. Gotta get cracking.