While Holmes is away

Anthony Horowitz's Moriarity makes an entertaining job of Sherlockian London without Sherlock or Watson – but it would be so much better to have them back

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

Moriarty Anthony Horowitz

Orion, pp.252, £19.99, ISBN: 9781409109471

Careful Sherlockians, on returning in adulthood to the four novels and 56 short stories that they devoured uncritically in their teens, tend to notice an endearing vagueness on the part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when it comes to details. There is Watson’s old war wound, for instance, which journeys absent mindedly between shoulder and leg. And there is Doyle’s inability to remember dates or even his own characters’ names. In ‘The Creeping Man’ the client, Trevor Bennett, is met by his fiancée with a gushing, ‘Oh, Jack, I have been so dreadfully frightened.’(Watson himself has form here. In ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ his wife calls him James and he does not find it odd, even though his name is John.)

Part of the reason is that Doyle was simply less bothered about Holmes and Watson than we are. He considered the duo a trivial distraction from the real business of penning historical novels, and even went to the trouble of killing Holmes before financial circumstances compelled him to resurrect him. In ‘The Empty House’, the opening story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), a thunderstruck Watson discovers that, instead of dying in a fall that also killed his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Holmes escaped and went into hiding for three years. It’s a good story, but Holmes’s explanations are so illogical that many writers have attempted more plausible ones.

Anthony Horowitz’s new novel is founded, like so many others, on the idea that the official version of the events that took place at the seething edge of the Reichenbach Falls is plain wrong. Unlike other books, it does not focus on Holmes or Watson, neither of whom feature at all. Instead, as the title suggests, the presiding figure in this tale is the man Holmes dubbed ‘the Napoleon of crime’.

The novel is narrated by Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton’s agent. Chase, aptly enough, pursues a master criminal named Clarence Devereux from New York to London. Devereux crossed the Atlantic with the idea of forming an alliance with Moriarty, but, with Moriarty missing (and possibly dead), he simply stepped in and began running the London underworld himself. Chase is determined but plodding, and so it is a relief that he is guided by Athelney Jones, the formerly inept policeman from The Sign of Four (1890). Stung by Watson’s portrayal in that book, Jones has been studying Holmes’s methods, so that he and Chase seem like a new Holmes and Watson — a little less impressive, perhaps, but potentially good enough to track down Devereux.

This is Horowitz’s second novel based on Doyle’s stories. It follows The House of Silk (2011), an account supposedly written late in life by Watson but too shocking to be published at the time. That book was a perfect coda to Watson’s reminiscences. Horowitz captured the voices of the crime-fighting cohabitees wonderfully, and gave readers a story that managed to be cosy enough to suit nostalgists and sordid enough both to suit modern tastes and to explain why it could never have found its way between hard covers in Watson’s day. The House of Silk sits, in terms of quality, comfortably alongside Doyle’s novels. The inevitable question is whether Moriarty is as good, and the short answer is no — but it is still enjoyable, and much better than several of Doyle’s own final, barrel-scraping short stories of the 1920s.

The difficulty, in my view, is that by omitting Holmes and Watson the author is fighting with one hand behind his back, since he somehow has to remain passably faithful to original stories and yet lacks his two prize assets with which to do so. Secondary figures appear, among them Inspector Lestrade and the criminal John Clay (from ‘The Red-Headed League’), but Chase is a flat narrator in comparison with the genial yet engaging Watson, and the magic does not quite appear this time. There are signs, perhaps, that Horowitz noticed this; the incredible body count and the baroque plot suggest a level of striving absent from the more natural, controlled first book. The final 25 pages — containing a considerable twist — are excellent, however, and go a fair way towards atoning for some less memorable passages earlier.

Whatever happens, I hope it won’t be the last of Horowitz’s Holmes novels: should he publish another, I will be at the front of the queue, along with the other escapist adults who ought to have grown up years ago.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Bob339

    Why can modern ‘writers’ not come up with something original? You can’t copy Conan Doyle, Shakespeare etc. leave them be and come up with your own ideas! Bunch of plagiaristic a- holes.

    • Fenton!

      There does seem to be an awful lot of pastiching and sequeling going on these days. And it’s not because writers don’t have their own ideas (Horowitz’s work seems very ambitious and independent and certainly more than just a ‘copy’, though I haven’t read it — I’m judging by the reviews). I think you have to consider that agents, publishers, and moviemakers want to produce that which they know will sell to the most people for the most money. Why take a chance on something original? If something is popular and successful, milk it for all its worth. This means that a lot of original ideas — worlds and characters — languish and the writers of them never break through. To a certain extent, there are lots of ‘Harry Potter’ worlds out there (and better written ones), but no one is willing to take a chance on them. In the case of Rowling, it’s as if she won her absurdly high ‘lottery’ because the supply was dammed up for so long by naysaying agents, while demand continued to build in the vacuum they created….

      • Bob339

        In simple terms: Corporate Greed is choking progress. As ever was.

        • Fenton!

          …As well as creativity, variety, and people’s careers.

    • Winter Jasmine

      Maybe laziness or a lack of originality, we live in a world where people just except the inferior. As well as the brilliant Doyle and Shakespeare, the same
      goes for music. They say imitation is the greatest compliment but I say its a
      damp squib.