Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles, by Kim Newman

Professor Moriarty and Basher Moran: if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had loved the bad guys more.

Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Titan Books, 2011, 476 pages

Imagine the twisted evil twins of Holmes and Watson and you have the dangerous duo of Prof. James Moriarty - wily, snake-like, fiercely intelligent, unpredictable - and Colonel Sebastian 'Basher' Moran - violent,politically incorrect, debauched. Together they run London crime, owning police and criminals alike. Unravelling mysteries -- all for their own gain.

A spin-off from Titan's highly successful Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, The Hound of the D'Urbervilles sees acclaimed novelist Kim Newman (Anno Dracula) take on the fiendish Professor Moriarty.

I love Sherlock Holmes. I'm not talking about the Robert Downey shoot-em-ups, which did little for me. But I read the entire collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a child, and the adventures of Holmes and Watson were so memorable that the best moments still stick in my mind years later. (Even if rereading a few of them recently did reveal that a lot of Holmes's "brilliant deductions" were, uh, kind of a stretch.)

I loved this work of unauthorized fan fiction by Kim Newman. I think it will be a delight to anyone with even a passing interest in Sherlock Holmes and/or Victorian fantasy, but only someone who has read the original stories will appreciate just how brilliantly Newman subverts and honors the Holmes canon, with a scholar's attention to detail.

Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is actually a collection of six novellas, narrated by Sebastian "Basher" Moran, who appeared as Moriarty's sidekick in a few of Doyle's stories, but here becomes a Harry Flashman-like protagonist, telling the true story of Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, and his own role in the Firm's criminal enterprises.

Moriarty rarely smiled,and then usually to terrify some poor victim. The first time I heard him laugh, I thought he had been struck by a deadly poison and the stutter escaping through his locked jaws was a death rattle.

This is the Holmes-verse from the bad guys' point of view.

Colonel Sebastian "Basher" Moran is a scoundrel, a cad, a chauvinist, a bully, a bounder, a braggart, a blaggard, and a bastard. Well, not technically a bastard. But he is unapologetic about his absolute lack of morals or scruples. A decorated officer of His Majesty's imperial service, because the one thing he is not is a coward, his views on the lesser races make Kipling seem an egalitarian, and his views on women need not be elaborated. And for all that, he is an immensely entertaining rogue; he'd even be charming if he didn't keep reminding you that he's a cheerfully murderous sociopath. Compared to Professor Moriarty, though, he's just a crusty old man with some interesting war stories.

It was hard to miss the small kitten pinned to the mantelpiece by a jackknife. The skewering had been skilfully done, through the velvety skinfolds of the haunches. The animal mewled from time to time, not in any especial pain.

"An experiment with morphine derivatives," he explained, following my gaze. "Tibbles will let us know when the effect wears off."

A Volume in Vermilion recounts how Moran met Moriarty and came to be his right-hand man, while pitting Moran against another fictional shooter, Jim Lassiter, in a perfectly twisted sequel to Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage.

There have been other books about Moriarty, but you'll find few in which the author has taken such care not only to show his knowledge of the Doyle canon, but an entire appendix-worth of references to other Victorian and pulp-era literature. Besides Moriarty and Moran, Newman uses many of Doyle's other minor characters, such as Irene Adler. And every character is a perfect, dark reflection of the original Doyle version.

For example, Irene Adler's only appearance in the original Sherlock Holmes stories was A Scandal in Bohemia; a clever, resourceful woman, self-interested but not evil, she was not quite a match for Holmes, but she was able to stymie him and earn his grudging respect, thereafter being referred to by him only as the woman.

After she turns up in A Shambles in Belgravia and similarly makes a monkey out of Moriarty and Moran, Moriarty refers to her exclusively as that bitch.

Newman also includes archvillains from other fantastic Victorian tales: the "Lord of Strange Deaths" (aka Fu Manchu), Dr Nikola and Simon Carne, Dr. Jack Quartz, Doctor Mabuse, the Hoxton Creeper, and host of other criminals and secret societies. The Adventure of the Six Maledictions sees a veritable war of underground societies erupt outside of Moriarty's headquarters, all orchestrated by the man himself.

In The Red Planet League, Moriarty turns his criminal genius to humiliating a fellow academic who has pricked his pride, and Newman turns his parody to H.G. Wells:

No one would have believed, in the next-to-last years of the nineteenth century, that his lecture was being watched keenly and closely by an intelligence greater than his own; that as he blathered on and on he was scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a berk with a microscope might scrutinise the tiny wriggly bugs that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, Stent read from his little sheaf of notes, serene in the assurance that he was royalty among astronomers.

Yet, across the gulf of the lecture hall, a mind that was to Stent’s as his was to those of the beasts that perish, an intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded the podium with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew his plans against him.

Professor Moriarty doesn't actually appear in the original Holmes stories until Doyle wanted to kill his character off. Likewise, the first few Moriarty stories in this collection don't even mention Holmes, and then only gradually are there references to Moriarty taking up an interest in "deduction" and disguises in response to an unnamed but annoying rival.

"Dullards would have you believe that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth... but to a mathematical mind, the impossible is simply a theorem yet to be solved. We must not eliminate the impossible, we must conquer it, suborn it to our purpose."

Moran is Watson to Moriarty's Holmes, but their partnership is a less affectionate one; even to the very end, Moran is never quite sure whether Moriarty is about to cashier him. Yet the two men are about as close to being friends as two such villains can be. Ten years pass from the first story to the last one, and Moran becomes reflective, realizing that he's an old war horse who has lived a lot longer than a man in his profession keeping the company he keeps ought to have. It's almost touching. In The Problem of the Final Adventure, Moriarty continues to dismiss the Thin Man of Baker Street as a credible rival, even as they head for their climactic confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.

Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is brilliant, an awesome and erudite homage to the entire genre of Victorian adventure, and darkly humorous throughout.

In a battle which might interest scholars of modern urban warfare, the Conduit Street Comanche whipped the tar out of an irregular band of crybaby destitutes who pledged allegience to the Watson's departed mucker-wallah.

Verdict: For fans of Sherlock Holmes, especially the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, this is an absolute must-read. Kim Newman nails the era, the slang, the genre, even the writing style, filling this book with easter eggs to delight all fans of Victorian pulp fiction, but with hilarious and dastardly stories that will entertain even the readers who miss the references. So entertaining and so skillfully executed, it makes my highly recommended list.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, highly recommended, reviews

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