Professor Moriarty is a book that shows the other side of crime fiction. It isn’t focused on the incredible intellects of super-sleuths, or the slow reveal of the hidden truth. No one gathers everyone together in the drawing room to explain that it was the butler, or stops at the door to ask just one more question.
Instead, Professor Moriarty is a book about criminals – about dark and secret schemes to defraud and extort, about running vast empires of vice right under the noses of the police. It focuses on one criminal mastermind in particular: the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty.
Obviously, he’s not a totally original character. Professor Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, the man who goes over the Reichenbach Falls with him. So Professor Moriarty is heavily influenced and intertwined with Conan Doyle’s original work.
As I’ve remarked before, I’m not a huge fan of authors adapting another author’s characters. It’s not that I’m against the idea of inspiration and re-imaginings in principle, but that I think they have to be extremely good to justify themselves. Too many re-imaginings are just hack work, stealing a better authors ideas, or written by people trying to “fix” a work they never understood.
Professor Moriarty avoids both these issues. I’d hold it up as an example of exactly how to adapt and reinvent an earlier work. It’s not a straight copy of Conan Doyle, because it’s about different events; the books occupy the same universe, but don’t always intertwine. Kim Newman’s book is inspired by the original Sherlock Holmes books, but still original.
Likewise, it doesn’t try and fix anything. There’s no awkward attempt to make the original setting multicultural and politically correct. There’s no massive retcon so that endings or relationships twist to the new authors liking. What alterations there are are subtle and justified – there are no rough edges, no broken pieces. Professor Moriarty doesn’t damage its inspiring work in any way.
It also plugs a gap. Holmes talks about Professor Moriarty occasionally, but the character doesn’t actually do very much – almost as soon as he is mentioned as the “Napoleon of Crime”, he and Holmes go to their watery rest. For his reputation and impact on Holmes, he’s actually quite a minor character.
Professor Moriarty fixes that. Told through the writings of Colonel Moran, who is to Moriarty as Watson is to Holmes, the book details years of criminal plots and activities. Moriarty is shown to be the diabolical mastermind that Conan Doyle said he was, is shown to be a fitting rival to the original Holmes.
This book does a lot of things very very well. Most noticeably, it reads right for the genre and the time – the prose sounds like Conan Doyle, has the clear features of Victorian literature and writing. That’s quite impressive – it’s not an easy style to copy, but Professor Moriarty doesn’t jar with the time period it’s set in.
It’s also very entertaining. Moran is quite a similar character to Flashman, with the same appeal – he’s an awful person, but a charismatic and ultimately sympathetic one. Moriarty is not the easiest character to like, so Moran has to carry all of that burden. The narration is witty, engaging, and irreverent throughout.
The book is stuffed with references. Not just to Sherlock Holmes (though it’s clear that the author is extremely familiar with the original stories), but also a wide variety of other stories, from The Time Machine to Tintin. The characters and references to other works are integrated seamlessly and without fanfare – I’m certain that I missed several allusions. It adds an extra dimension to reading, looking out to see where a character or situation might originate from.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is the same one that Conan Doyle suffered as well – an under-developed nemesis. It isn’t Holmes, and instead Moriarty’s struggles are due to the workings of another criminal. They come some what out of nowhere towards the end of the book – it’s not that they are not introduced much earlier, but that they aren’t a credible threat until the end. Suddenly, this new enemy goes from an annoyance to a serious problem. It doesn’t quite work, leaving the final section feeling a bit dislocated from the earlier ones, and characters acting somewhat unlike themselves. Perhaps what this book needs is a later Kim Newman to come along and flesh out its villain, and so on ad infinitum.
With that said though, the final ending is strong and effective. It fits with the characters and finishes about as close to perfectly as you could wish for. It’s unlikely, I think, that this book will see a sequel, but I wouldn’t be averse to one.
Overall, I really enjoyed Professor Moriarty – far more than I expected to when it was suggested to me. It could have been absolutely appalling, like the host of Holmes (and other famous characters) “updates” or “re-imaginings”. Professor Moriarty stands head and shoulders above the crowd though – an inspired work that adds to, rather than diminishes, the inspiring world. I thought it was great.