Professor James Moriarty is to crime fiction what Hamlet is to tragedy. Moriarty heads a roll call of archetypal villains that includes Karla, Goldfinger, Voldemort, Scudder and the Joker. His name commands instant respect as “the Napoleon of crime”. Among Sherlock Holmes addicts, he is the master sleuth’s nemesis, whose fatal intervention at the Reichenbach Falls was supposed to liberate his creator from the intolerable pressures of a mass readership.
Actually, like the devil in the Bible, his presence on the pages of Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is almost fleeting. Moriarty, in fact, features in only two of the Sherlock Holmes stories and was bumped off soon after his first appearance. But he remains irresistible to Conan Doyle’s heirs and imitators as the perfect, villainous counterpoint to the great detective. No surprise, then, that Anthony Horowitz has been lured into the marketplace to grapple with his memory. If Sherlock is box office, why shouldn’t Moriarty be equally lucrative?
There’s no doubt that we are in the company of a seasoned Conan Doyle ventriloquist. Just as Sebastian Faulks has lately revisited Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, so Horowitz has already paid homage to Conan Doyle’s popular storytelling genius. His The House of Silk (2011) was widely praised as the contemporary equal of its peerless original. But here, in Moriarty, he has set himself an escapist challenge that would stretch the resources of the most accomplished literary Houdini. To revisit Victorian London, in the months after the Reichenbach Falls disaster, with Holmes dead and Dr Watson absent, is to test narrative ingenuity to the limits of credibility.
Horowitz’s solution to the problem of the absent protagonist is threefold. First, he indulges his pleasure in scene-setting. Moriarty is replete, possibly overburdened, with lovingly researched period detail, the suffocating smoke, dust and fog of fin-de-siècle London, and the cigar-scented shadows of clubland, with its baize doors and uniformed servants. Second, he introduces an American dimension to the narrative. Hot from New York, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase comes to London to join Sherlock Holmes wannabe inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard in the quest for a “fiendish” new criminal mastermind who has filled the vacuum left by the untimely deaths of Holmes and Moriarty. And third, Horowitz comes up with a twist in the tale, “the truth of the matter”, which is clever but contrived, reducing the whole exercise to an elaborate, though highly entertaining, jape.
Suffice to say that the reality that Horowitz has taken such pains to establish is no such thing and that nothing is quite as it seems. The atmosphere of smoke and mirrors in which Moriarty winds up will doubtless enthral Sherlock fans, but runs the risk of leaving the general reader cold.