torsdag 1 september 2016

Moriarty variations

Professor Moriarty is dead, to begin with. Or is he? In the beginning of Anthony Horowitz's novel Moriarty, two men meet in a crypt near the Reichenbach Falls where the body of a tall, thin reptilian-looking man is laid out. Everything points to this being the Professor himself, among other things a coded letter found on his person from an American crime lord, suggesting they meet, supposedly with a view to join forces. The novel starts out, then, as a hunt for another master criminal. The two men - Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, who has studied Sherlock Holmes's methods - team up in order to hunt down Moriarty's American counterpart Clarence Devereaux, who is planning to establish himself in England.

But wait a bit. Isn't the novel called Moriarty? It can't be all about this Devereaux chap then, can it? That would be cheating. Well, I don't think I will be revealing too much if I say that the title isn't a cheat. All is clearly not as it seems in a novel that starts with the line "Does anyone really believe what happened at the Reichenbach Falls?". Chase and Jones are soon made aware that someone is killing off Devereaux's London agents one by one. Is this someone Moriarty, or does his soul go marching on in the shape of his criminal organisation? And if a criminal merger was under way, why would Devereaux's men be a target for Moriarty's crowd?

The story is an enjoyable adventure story on its own terms, irrespective of the Moriarty factor. Chase and Jones make a dynamic duo, and their fast-blossoming friendship is all the more affecting because you suspect that they never will be the new Holmes and Watson - something, or someone, is sure to put paid to any such plans. The picture of Moriarty that emerges is satisfying, on the whole. We get the abstract thinker with a certain detachment to his fellow men and to what may befall them through his criminal activity. Conan Doyle's Moriarty made sure those in his employ who were caught got the best legal defence money could buy, and Horowitz's Moriarty shows the same "honour among thieves" tendency. Unlike John Gardner's version, he has little in common with a modern gangster. At one point, Devereaux threatens Jones's family, and the two sleuths are appalled at his ungentlemanly behaviour - it is made clear that the English Napoleon of Crime would never stoop to this. Yet isn't it exactly the first step any serious criminal would take nowadays? Make no mistake, though, Horowitz's Moriarty can be chilling when he chooses, and the loyalty he feels towards his own men can sometimes strengthen his ruthlessness towards everyone else. Compared to him, Devereaux is decidedly second rate.

If there is one thing that separates Conan Doyle's Moriarty from Horowitz's, it's the degree of showiness. We are led to believe that many of the peculiarities the Professor displays in his conversation with Holmes in The Final Problem are more or less play-acting. This is a bit disappointing, but vital to the structure of Horowitz's story. The novel is reminiscent of Christie's The Secret Adversary, but an adversary can't remain very secret if he stalks about with a large domed forehead moving his head from side to side like a snake.

A Moriarty who appealed even more to me is the protagonist in the first Professor Moriarty novel by Michael Kurland, The Infernal Device. There are more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them as well. Here's a Professor who lives up to his billing. He's scientifically minded - in fact, science is his passion while crime is simply his job. He's a cold rationalist and in many ways the mirror image of his enemy Sherlock Holmes. His organisation is impressive, and his employees are full of respect, even fondess, for him. Plus he's as tall, stooping and dome-headed as one could possibly ask for. As Moriarty is in the front and centre of the plot, he can afford to be as showy as he pleases. Other pluses with The Infernal Device are Moriarty's newly recruited sidekick Benjamin Barnett - an American journalist heavily in the Professor's debt who gamely accepts becoming part of his doubtful outfit without any time-consuming scruples - and the fact that we actually get to meet Holmes and Watson (they don't feature in Moriarty, but then Holmes is believed to be dead in that one).

Kurland's Moriarty has his own "moral code" which can be perplexing. He's affronted that Holmes would think him capable of abducting a seventeen-year-old girl, but the crimes he does commit - a high-profile bank robbery, for instance - could very well lead to human misery on an impressive scale, and you'd think a genius would be able to work out the possible implications of his deeds. I find it convincing, though, that both Kurland's and Horowitz's Moriartys have a kind of moral blindness which clouds their judgement enough for them to become criminal masterminds in the first place.

It's funny how fascinated many, including me, have become with a fictional character who only makes an appearance in one of the Holmes stories, and then in such a way as to apparently make it impossible to reintroduce him (then Conan Doyle did think that The Final Problem would be final). We are told that when Holmes first mentions Moriarty in this story, Watson has never heard of him. Then Holmes tells Watson of his very first meeting with the Professor - so even if Holmes has been fighting Moriarty for a while, the possibility for prequels seems to be ruled out, as the two antagonists have never actually met before. And then, of course, the Professor dies, thus apparently ruling out any chances of a Moriarty sequel.

What Horowitz, Kurland and many others have done is simply to doubt the truthfulness of The Final Problem. There is some basis in Conan Doyle's own work for this - Holmes makes a reference to Moriarty somewhere (in The Valley of Fear, I think), and Watson appears fully aware of his master criminal status there. Moreover, if Watson is mistaken (Horowitz) or lying, probably for some honourable reason such as loyalty to Holmes (Kurland), it opens up the possibility of more Moriarty adventures, set before or after his supposed demise at the Reichenbach Falls. It seems a price worth paying. Moriarty purists like myself would do well to remember, though, that reintroducing Moriarty at all goes against Conan Doyle's own narrative. Consequently, one can't very well complain if further liberties are taken. Not that that's ever stopped me.