‘The notion of reinventing Moriarty and Moran as malign doppelgängers of Holmes and Watson may have been touched upon before, but not with the sheer firecracker exuberance that Newman brings to Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.’ Kim Newman’s highly entertaining novel was reviewed in The Independent by Barry Forshaw: here is the complete, unexpurgated version of that review….
When then-Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell responded to an attempt to save Arthur Conan Doyle’s house Undershaw by insouciantly underplaying the importance of the novelist and his creation Sherlock Holmes to British culture, she incurred the wrath of such writers as Ian Rankin. And to many of us, Holmes aficionados or not, her remarks seemed particularly philistine. And remarkably wrongheaded, given that Sherlock Holmes is one of the most instantly recognisable characters in fiction (a recent worldwide poll placed him alongside Tarzan and Superman). Almost equally celebrated, of course, is his nemesis Professor James Moriarty. Moriarty is the ultimate criminal genius, and is one of the elements Conan Doyle did not borrow from Edgar Allan Poe when creating the Great Detective and his world. The line of Moriarty’s evil descendants stretches down to Hannibal Lecter and beyond, and just as all fictional detectives live in Holmes’ shadow, so criminal masterminds are similarly judged against the yardstick of Conan Doyle’s Napoleon of Crime. What is surprising for many readers is how little time his creator spent on Moriarty, and how few appearances he makes in the Holmes canon. The reason for his imperishable reputation may be due to the number of people who have taken up the character both in films and on the printed page after the death of his creator. The novelist John Gardner wrote a series of enjoyable Moriarty pastiches, but it has taken the polymath critic and novelist Kim Newman to do something really audacious with the master criminal — and his conduit for a new approach to the brilliantly evil mathematician is presented to the reader through the rambunctious, self-regarding journal of his lieutenant Colonel Sebastian Moran (a figure who appears even fewer times in Conan Doyle stories). The notion of reinventing Moriarty and Moran as malign doppelgängers of Holmes and Watson may have been touched upon before, but not with the sheer firecracker exuberance that Newman brings to Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.
The masterstroke here is making the narrator a murderous, libidinous villain not a million miles away from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, and allowing us to see the bloodless, asexual Moriarty through the eyes of his boastful, utterly amoral lieutenant. Moran, who both loathes and respects his employer, sees him as a solitary masturbator – which for Moran (always on the lookout for female conquests to whom he can administer a ‘Moran special’), is a contemptible activity.
The other wonderfully entertaining conceit Newman comes up with here is the series of spins on other writers, not just Conan Doyle but also HG Wells (invading Martians may or may not make an appearance) and even Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex Moran dismisses as ‘one of the shit-holes of the world’. Newman manages to find grotesquery in Hardy to extrapolate into the operatic evil laid out for us in these tales (the ‘reddleman’ from Return of the Native, whose skin is rendered scarlet from his sheep dyes, fits in perfectly. As does a corrupt, phoney scion of the D’Urberville family, pestered by a monstrous, throat-ripping hound). And is the ghostly female figure with a neck broken by hanging the late Theresa Clare, née Tess Durbeyfield?
The fact that Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is essentially a collection of linked tales rather than an organically conceived novel may disappoint some, but it should be remembered that Newman’s inspiration, Conan Doyle, did his best work in the short stories rather than the novels. By giving readers something between the two, Newman may be allowing us to have our cake and eat it. It’s to be hoped that the game will be afoot for the deadly duo of Moran and Moriarty in short order.
Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles