The story goes that one night, Susan Cooper, annoyed at her husband, James Fenimore, for disparaging her choice of book, challenged him to write a better one. That is why, dear reader, we have Precaution, The Spy, The Last of the Mohicans and the whole turgid oeuvre.
I’ve told my husband, and a friend, that reviewing novels while trying to write my own has led me to conclude that there are three types of book: the kind you believe you can surpass, the kind you think you can manage, and the kind you would gladly sell your soul to write. Sitting in the WalMart parking lot with Mr. Newman’s book, waiting for the rain to slow and hoping my shopping would miraculously complete itself, I did the traditional “flip through,” in which I try to figure out what to expect from a book, and checked out the ending. So it was that I happened on this:
Well past midnight, the house was quiet except for someone sobbing in a distant room. It wasn’t my birthday anymore.*
There’s something perfect about those two sentences. The rhythm, the simplicity, the visuals, the disconsolateness. It’s hard to achieve such a large effect with so few words. I felt the cold thrill of anticipation creep down my spine. When I read the very last line, I knew exactly which type this book would be.**
The ex-birthday boy is Col. Sebastian “Basher” Moran, and his outlook on life hasn’t always been so dark. Not even when he arrives back in London after his time in India and Afghanistan, wounded (Russian secret police, prostitute with a knife, tiger) and with such bad credit his usual hotels won’t take him. Fortunately, he runs into an old classmate, Archie Stamford, and at the Criterion bar, this once-failed, now successful forger gives him the card of his employer. Moran goes to meet the gentleman in his lodgings above a whorehouse in Conduit street, where he’s greeted by the startling statement:
“You’ve been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”***
When asked how the devil he knows that, Professor James Moriarty proceeds with a longer description of his visitor, from his less-than-honorable military career, his family issues, his love of gambling and women, to less obvious qualities, such as his love of violence and his addiction to danger and fear. Moran is unimpressed; he’s seen Indian charlatans do the same, using minute observations and deductions. Moriarty, however, counters that only idiots guess…or deduce. He’s simply done his research, and that research has convinced him that he wants Moran as second-in-command in his organization, head of a highly lucrative sideline: murder. Sebastian Moran, someone who, to all appearances, has no respect for authority, calls his own shots (literally and figuratively), and truly enjoys killing, looks at this odd man with the oscillating head and the kitten stuck on the mantel with a knife:
“‘Who are you?’ I asked, unaccustomed to the reverential tone I heard in my own voice. ‘What are you?’
Moriarty smiled his adder’s smile.
And I relaxed. I knew. My destiny and his wound together. It was a sensation I’d never got before upon meeting a man. When I’d had it from women, the upshot ranged from disappointment to attempted murder. Understand me, Professor James Moriarty was a hateful man, the most hateful, hateable, creature I have ever known, not excluding Sir Augustus and Kali’s Kitten and the Abominable Bloody Snow-Bastard and the Reverend Henry James Prince. He was something man-shaped that had crawled out from under a rock and moved into the manor house. But, at that moment, I was his, and I remain his forever. If I am remembered, it will be because I knew him. From that day on, he was my father, my commanding officer, my heathen idol, my fortune and terror and rapture.†
And there it is. The key. But Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles isn’t always so bleak, nor is it simply a Bizarro World version of Sherlock Holmes (although Newman does play a bit with that). Instead, it politely reminds us that, no matter what Meyer or Dibdin†† would like you to think, Moriarty and his criminal empire existed and operated, and did so apart from Holmes and Watson. They have their own adventures, their own unrecorded cases, and their own vault at Box & Co (the Criminals’ Bank), one of which held a manuscript of Sebastian Moran’s memoirs of his decade with the Napoleon of Crime.
They’re good years, for the most part. Moran seems to have a wonderful time carrying out Moriarty’s various schemes. Some are simply part of the Firm’s regular consulting business. Moriarty charges two Danites from Utah £200,000 for the murder of one heiress and her hero protector, and the safe handover of another one. Unfortunately for Drebber and Strangerson, Moriarty anticipates their double-cross, and arranges for them to meet up with one Mr. Hope, who is pursuing them on another, “utterly tiresome” matter.††† Our boys manage to finagle their way into £20,000 of silver for what started out as one simple pelt during the inheritance dispute of the title story. Still, Moriarty and Moran are not always so clever; when they’re foolish enough to get involved in the endless struggle for the throne of Ruritania, they’re outdone by an ex-opera singer who leaves them her cabinet photo as a souvenir. She makes a practice of this, apparently.
Other missions are more personal. Most of the adventures have a sardonic edge to them, but the story of how Moriarty finally vanquished his greatest nemesis–Astronomer Royal Sir Nevil Airey Stent–is just hilarious. One of Moriarty’s former pupils (from his days as a coach), Stent has surpassed his tutor’s academic achievements on every level, and now plans to deliver a refutation of the Professor’s magnum opus, The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Stent’s pride and ignorance of new technology play a part, as do liberal doses of Dr. Tirmorary’s Infusion for Coughs, Colds, and Wheezes– which consists of a liberal quantity of diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, to be “inhaled under a towel.”‡ This story contains pages from Sir Nevil’s personal journal–but, unlike other authors, Moran actually bothers to explain how he came about them–he simply stole them, and saved himself a bit of writing trouble. If only others could be so forthcoming!
In another chaotic episode, “The Six Maledictions,” Moriarty takes the opportunity presented by a client seeking to escape the assassins attached to a jewel he’s stolen to do a bit of assassinating on his own. Apparently the world is full of tokens that various criminal and anarchist groups would kill to possess. When the smoke finally clears, the playing field of the underworld is a mite less dense. The fact that Moriarty and the Colonel accomplish this culling of their rivals in a way that fits in with an obscure dramatic poem written in 1911 by J. Milton Hayes is just a bonus.‡‡
Family relations are more complex, however, particularly when one brother wants you to investigate an odd worm, while the other warns you off. And when the train you take to the station in question is filled with dicey-looking characters, well…. “The Greek Invertebrate” is a steampunk-ish venture into international intrigue in which we meet another of Moriarty’s archenemies (apparently it’s possible to have more than one), and learn the reason why both he and his two brothers–one older, one younger–are named James. In a moment, spoilers will prevent me from sharing my favorite line of the entire book, so I’ll be self-indulgent, and give you a small glimpse of the reason why Moran holds that James, pater, was, in fact, the worst of his family:
‘James and James, [Moriarty says] also, are not whole, have had to share with me something that should be one man’s alone. But there is a strength in that. Some qualities, some possessions, are distractions.
‘Young James had a comfortable settlement from our parents, but it did him little good and is all gone now. He will never be more than a functionary. A poor one at that. James went into the army, to find an order, system, and path. He is respectable. My first inclination was to join the clergy. That I see no mathematical proof whatsoever for the existence of God is no drawback. Rather, atheism is likely to help advance in the Church of England. No distracting beliefs. Then, I saw what could be done with numbers and have made my life’s work the business which employs you and so many others. Had I been the only James Moriarty, I would not be what you see before you.’
I looked into his clear, cold eyes. His head was steady.
I had no doubt of what he had told me. No doubt at all.
In that compartment, it was cold. Around Moriarty, there would never be warmth.
We were well past Reading.
‘We’re nearing our final destination, Moriarty.’
‘Yes, Moran, I believe we are.’‡‡‡
From here, the tone of the memoir darkens. Like Watson, who had neither kith nor kin in England, Moran (who does not get on well with his maiden sisters) has cobbled together his own family–only instead of a consulting detective, housekeeper, and at least one police inspector, Moran relies on a madam, her “girls,” and a criminal mastermind. He feels secure. He believes he’s found people who accept him, and value what he can do. He’s happy. But while Dr. Watson gets to hear his odd, slightly distant friend threaten vengeance against the man who tried to kill him, thereby knowing, once and for all, that his own loyalty is justified, Moran receives no such assurances.§ Instead, he receives an air-gun for his birthday–a present which will serve Moriarty’s purposes, but which only proves to the Colonel that his own friend has never cared to know who he really is.
In the end, it is The Woman who changes everything. Just as Mary Morstan reminds John Watson of what he’s missing, so Irene Adler opens Moran’s eyes to the truth of his situation. Is he Moriarty’s trusted confidant, his number-two man, his partner? Or is he merely the gunbearer? An old shikari like Moran knows the difference.
So it is that, within the deftly twisted canon references (with Rathbone/Bruce and Granada Easter eggs thrown in for your delectation), and hidden in the throng of late-Victorian and Edwardian pulp-ish players, is a deeper story about friendship, loyalty, and the intensely human need to be accepted and understood. At 221B, we have perhaps the fictional world’s best example of what happens when people get it right.
As to when it goes wrong….
Now, it’s possible that you won’t love Hound of the d’Urbervilles as much as I do. I admit that the large cast of characters, nearly all of whom are significant in other universes, may seem daunting, but there’s no need to research them all unless you really want to. Does it help? Yes, and it’s fun, but you can enjoy the book without constant recourse to Wikipedia.§§ Some might not be interested in a book in which Holmes appears only briefly, never by name (he is always “the Thin Man of Baker Street”), and in one key scene is described rather derisively (but really now, consider the source). Likewise, those who want a virtuous Mrs. Godfrey Norton may dislike this now-familiar take on the New Jersey adventuress. It’s not a completely serious story, either, so those readers who are put off by a slightly quirky version of the Doylean world may have doubts, although I urge you to overcome them. Finally, Sebastian Moran is exactly the man you’d imagine–crude, vulgar, xenophobic, misogynistic, with no regard for human life whatsoever–but he’s also charming. It’s hard not to like him, in the end; he’s the bad boy you share your lunch table with, and keep a secret from your mother. Still, if you’re offended by coarse talk and words spelled with asterisks, best not to sit down. In the end, the only problem I had with the book was that an important subplot, involving Moriarty’s conflict with Dr. Mabuse, was resolved quickly, offscreen, when the build-up led me to expect something a bit more dramatic. Then again, Doyle’s done that himself–convenient shipwrecks, anyone?–so perhaps that was the point.
No novel is perfect, in the end, but as far as I’m concerned, The Hound of the D’Urbervilles comes close. If you’re looking for what seems to be a hilarious romp through the seedier side of London, but which is, at bottom, a wrenching morality play in which the characters more often than not engineer their own destruction, all told with the most consistently perfect chapter ends imaginable–put down Three Months in the Jungle; this is the book you want. As for me, there’s a graveyard down the road, it’s nearly midnight, and I’ll be taking my pen.
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is widely available, as it should be. Look for it at your favorite bookseller, in both traditional and epub form. Mr. Newman can be found at his website, johnnyalucard.com. He was also the keynote speaker for the 2013 BSI Weekend; if his talk is published, I’ll provide the link or other information for you on the blog’s Facebook page.
And, of course, I love this book so much that it would be unconscionable not to provide a giveaway copy, so…first commenter!
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”
*Newman, p. 421.
**Others share this opinion. Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles was named Sherlockian.net’s “Best Sherlockian Book I Read in 2012.” And Mr. Redmond is a much, much more exacting judge than I. See http://www.sherlockian.net/books/best/2012.html.
***Newman, p.26. Obviously, this is the same greeting Holmes had for Watson in STUD.
† Newman, p.29.
†† Both Nicholas Meyer, in The Seven Percent Solution, and Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, have unorthodox views on the Professor’s existence.
††† Yes. Tiresome. And no, you won’t have to trudge through Utah again.
‡ Newman, p. 120.
‡‡ For the poem itself, see: allpoetry.com/poem/8506921-The_Green_Eye_Of_The_Little_Yellow_God-by-J_Milton_Hayes. For more information on its background and use, including Newman’s book, see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Eye_of_the_Little_Yellow_God
‡‡‡ Newman, p.374.
§ For Watson’s revelatory moment, see “The Three Garridebs” (3GAR).
§§ Mr. Newman makes extensive use of the “Wold Newton Universe.” For more information on this theory, first proposed by science fiction (and pastiche) writer Philip Jose Farmer–as well as a list of characters in Newman’s book, see: pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/AnnoDracula.