Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Elementary, my dear Colonel...

Is it a coincidence that at around the time I participated in a Sherlock Holmes-themed podcast, I suddenly was reviewing a lot of Sherlock-related material? Not entirely. If you’ve listened to the podcast (as I’m sure you have), you’ll know that I was very excited to mention Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Kim Newman. I claimed that it took the character of Colonel Sebastian Moran and Professor James Moriarty and made them into twisted reflections of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

It’s all quite cleverly done. Similar to Watson and Holmes, Moran and Moriarty are introduced by a man named Stamford. They too share rooms and have a housekeeper named Mrs. Halifax (often referred to as Mrs. H) who keeps a brothel. Holmes has the Baker Street Irregulars? Moriarty matches him with the Conduit Street Comanche. And throughout the entire proceedings, author Kim Newman reimagines the familiar Holmesian universe through the eyes of Colonel Sebastian “Basher” Moran.

But these are not merely Holmes stories retold from the villains’ perspective. Rather, these are entirely original adventures that intertwine with the Holmes stories we all know and love. We see just how Moriarty manages to influence the cases Holmes was soon going to crack. And Holmes rarely appears onstage, but as the short story collection progresses, his presence becomes more pronounced, ultimately culminating in The Problem of the Final Adventure. In fact, all the short stories in this fine collection have titles that play around neatly with the titles of the original Holmes adventures.

A Volume in Vermillion
In the year 1880, the world changed when Colonel Sebastian ‘Basher’ Moran met Professor James Moriarty for the first time. Freshly back (and wounded) from Afghanistan, Colonel Moran is introduced to the Professor by one Archie Stamford, and is immediately hired at The Firm. He will be sharing rooms with the Professor and will also take care of the assassinations—a sort of murderer-in-chief, if you will.

It isn’t long before a client arrives: Elder Enoch J. Drebber of Cleveland, Ohio. “With him came a shifty cove by the name of Brother Stangerson,” Moran reports, and die-hard Holmes fans will immediately recognize who these characters are: the victims in A Study in Scarlet. Why have they come to consult Moriarty? They have spotted a man in London who, according to them, must die: “He’s a murderer, plain and flat, and an abductor of women. Hauled out his six-gun and shot Bishop Dyer, in front of the whole town. A crime against God. Then fetched away Jane Withersteen, a good Mormon woman, and her adopted child, Little Fay. He threw down a mountain on his pursuers, crushing Elder Tull and many good Mormon men.” Why, that’s right—these men are connected to the events of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage!

Their proposed victim is Jim Lassiter, but they have no idea where to find him. All they know is that he’s in London under some assumed name. They only know one thing: they caught Jane Withersteen addressing Little Fay as “Rache”, “doubtless a diminutive for the godly name ‘Rachel’…”

Excited yet? This is the kind of storytelling you will find throughout this book: countless allusions to other books and fictional characters, all done in a delightfully witty way. You’re also not sure how everything will turn out: Colonel Moran is sent to kill Lassiter, but surely the author won’t have such a great hero killed by such a blackguard? Right?

Briefly put, this introduces our characters very nicely and is an action-packed story that delightfully sets up the events of A Study in Scarlet, with Moran none the wiser at the moment…

It is also in this first story that the author clearly lays out his intentions: these will not simply be rehashes of Holmes stories. When Moran first meets Moriarty, the Professor’s first words are: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” When Moriarty keeps on going, Moran tells him he’s unimpressed with the game of deduction, to which the Professor slaps him across the face and hisses that “only an idiot guesses or reasons or deduces.” He then explains he simply ran a background check on Moran.

This sets the tone of the stories to follow: Professor Moriarty is not retained to solve crimes, he’s retained to commit them.  And commit them he does, enlisting Moran to do certain things which seem to make no sense, but which at the conclusion will all fit into Moriarty’s grand plan. That is the formula.

A Shambles in Belgravia
Sherlock Holmes was not the only man that Irene Adler bested. To Holmes, she was always The Woman. To Moriarty, she was always that b--ch. In this story, Irene Adler comes to the Professor and asks him to retrieve some compromising photographs, so that she can blackmail the pants off of all the parties involved (at a commission of her earnings, of course). In a relatively short tale, Moriarty proceeds to retrieve the photos. And yet, one nagging question remains: why come to Moriarty? Surely any amateur cracksman could break open a window and retrieve these photos at night? The answer to this riddle is delicious.

We also see the "dark mirror" concept at work. Where Watson focuses on the gentle qualities of Irene Adler, Colonel Moran mocks her "Noo Joisey" accent and her terrible singing voice. So... who was the more reliable chronicler?

The Red Planet League
In this tale, Professor Moriarty finally gets one up on his rival. That’s right: it’s a meeting between two giants, as Professor Moriarty squares off with the one, the only, the immortal: Sir Nevil Airey Stent!

Well, that’s right: every great detective needs an arch-nemesis, but Moriarty is a professor in his spare time and needs an academic rival. Sir Nevil fits the bill when he holds a lecture one night and tears apart Moriarty’s masterpiece, The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Moriarty is displeased, and immediately sets about getting his revenge, taking steps that are taken right out of the H. G. Wells Playbook… Or rather vice versa, since a young H. G. Wells is a spectator when the Professor’s plan culminates!

The Hound of the D’Urbervilles
This is the closest Moriarty gets to being hired to solve a real mystery. He is hired by one Jasper Stoke-d’Urberville, who has just arrived on merry England’s shores from America. And he has fine plans for the Wessex town that he has inherited— he will move into the place and become a tyrant, reviving such joys as the droit du seigneur. Naturally, the villagers are not happy, but they find consolation in a local legend that says that whenever a d’Urberville is a tyrant, a legendary wolf goes on a hunt and will feast on d’Urberville flesh. d’Urberville hires Moriarty to kill the wolf and lay the legend to rest so he may continue his reign of terror. (Naturally, this objective makes it undesirable for him to consult a famous detective who might accuse him of plagiarism…)

This is an effectively-written, at times rather creepy tale. We get all sorts of elements, such as the ghost of a monk that may possess the beast. There’s the ghost of a woman who was hanged. One of d’Urberville’s top assistants has his throat ripped out, and almost as soon as Colonel Moran arrives in Wessex, a woman d’Urberville turned out of her home threatens to kill him, only to be soon found dead. The author here goes more for subtler touches, although there are gory moments. (What else do you expect when Colonel Moran is off hunting a legendary wolf?) And the legend is a damned good one— it’s the kind of epic ghost story that Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts desperately needed to make the ghostly figure of a dematerialising nun more sinister.

The Adventure of the Six Maledictions
This is unfortunately the weakest story of the lot. It has an intriguing premise: Professor Moriarty is hired to save the skin of one Major Humphrey Carew, who stole a jewel from the eye of a heathen idol and is currently being persecuted by a fanatical cult. But Moriarty’s tactic is a strange one— he decides to go and acquire five more reputedly-cursed items, to the point where everyone from the Knights Templar to the Mafia are after Moriarty. There’s even a great scene where Colonel Moran goes to the opera, where Bianca Castafiore (of Tintin fame!) is performing. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Colonel Moran dress up in a cloak and go onstage during an opera … here’s your chance! The scene is uproariously funny.

Unfortunately, it’s more or less downhill after that. After the heights of the opera, we are treated to a bunch of bizarre scenes, and Moriarty’s reasoning ultimately makes no sense. It’s a major gamble for Moriarty that could have seen his criminal empire decimated. But he comes out all right in the end because he’s Professor Moriarty. Hoorah, I suppose. (Matters aren’t helped when Moriarty goes and irrelevantly participates in some quick and ignorant Catholic-priest bashing that sounds like forced “commentary”.)

The Greek Invertebrate
Sherlock had his brother Mycroft, but there’s a whole clan of Moriartys as well! Here we meet the two brothers of Professor James Moriarty: Colonel James Moriarty and Stationmaster James Moriarty! Apparently, the parents had a tremendous fondness for the name “James”. This story sets up elements that will come into play in the next one, as Professor Moriarty is interested by a message he receives from his youngest brother James: a giant worm is apparently terrorising Cornwall! Before long, it turns into a major family feud. Watch out in particular for a very neat reference to Mycroft Holmes through a line of dialogue near the end of the story, delivered by Colonel Moriarty.

The Problem of the Final Adventure
Speculation has been abundant ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill Sherlock Holmes off in The Final Problem. Colonel Moran finally decides to tell his side of the story, and we get a very different picture of Holmes and Moriarty’s involvement. It begins with a fake funeral, which is actually an excuse to bring together criminal masterminds from all over the world to a meeting. It all builds up to a spectacular finale that we all know very well, of course… but how well do you really know it?

***

And that is The Hound of the d’Urbervilles, one of the most interesting spins on the Holmesian universe that I’ve ever read. The author is not interested in simply coming up with a carbon copy of the Holmes stories; this is an interesting and innovative twist on familiar material.

Just imagine him in Victorian dress...
I particularly like how no attempt is ever made to exonerate Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran. Indeed, in some ways, Colonel Moran is like a Victorian version of Mike Hammer! (This is particularly evident in one scene where he decides, just for the hell of it, to go and kill a dog that annoys him.) There is, for me, a key difference: Mike Hammer repulses me because he’s a psychopathic scumbag parading as a heroic “dark knight”. Colonel Moran is perfectly aware that he is a psychopathic scumbag, and he knows that Moriarty is a thoroughly nasty sort. He never tries to pretend otherwise, and some of his sardonic comments levelled at the undoubtedly-shocked public could have come right out of the mouth of Michael Hammer, esquire. Somehow, having the villain aware that he is a villain makes him more fascinating. He’ll say something to offend just about anyone at one point or another, yet paradoxically, he shows a curious reservation over printing the “F-word” or “C-word”, censoring these. (Although he’s perfectly happy to keep the term ‘b--ch’ intact…)

This is also a paradise for the Holmes fan and general literary lover. We have references to practically everything: The Adventures of Tintin (although I’m not sure if the chronology here would work), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin tales, E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles, hell, even The Phantom of the Opera! (A footnote points out this last reference, which I hadn’t caught: it’s one of the most delightful.) This excerpt from The Adventure of the Final Problem made me laugh out loud:

Lot of rum doings in Kingstead Cemetery. The real Thomas Carnacki has a whole evening’s worth of spook anecdotes about the place. The management have had to double the night guard since the Van Helsing scandal broke in the Westminster Gazette. An old Dutch crank was arrested for repeatedly breaking in, vandalising the tombs and desecrating the corpses. Especially young, relatively fresh lady corpses. No accounting for taste, but – really? – is there nothing foreigners won’t sink to?

To sum up, The Hound of the d’Urbervilles is a delight. It’s well-written and witty, and the author decides to go the extra mile and do something different. It brings something unique to the altar of Holmes re-imaginings. It has plenty of fun twisting the conventions of the Holmes stories and darkly reflecting them through Moran and Moriarty. And just like Watson, Moran has an infuriating habit of alluding to other, as-of-yet-unchronicled adventures…

4 comments:

  1. As you know, I'm not big on pastiches, especially Holmesian ones, but this review convinced me that this might be one of those rare exceptions and its has been jotted down on my wish list. Good job!

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  2. These aren't always the world's greatest mysteries, but they are undeniably fun for the Holmes fan! Glad I was able to persuade you to take a closer look! :) (This book was particularly appreciated after my last read, another Holmes pastiche, which will be covered in a crossover review.)

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  3. I've long been a fan of Newman's work as a film critic and fiction author (he also publishes as Jack Yeovil). I haven't read this one yet (I have his new edition of ANNO DRACULA to get through first) but it's definitely going on the list. incidentally, Kim's homepage is a fund of fascinating info about his multitude of activities (he is very, very prolific): www.johnnyalucard.com/

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  4. Yes, I stumbled over that site and I think ANNO DRACULA is a fascinating idea! The only reason I didn't apply the "masterpiece" tag to this collection was the major let-down of THE SIX MALEDICTIONS, but this really does a fascinating job reimagining the Holmes universe through the eyes of Moran. In another dicsussion, I called it "a somewhat-hardboiled reimagining of the Holmes universe"-- which of course stems from the Mike Hammer similarity!

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