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.

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