Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pierce’s Picks: “Moriarty”

An irregular alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):
Let me say, first of all, that as a rule I really, really, really dislike novels that don’t offer a sense of conclusion by their final page, but instead end in cliff-hangers that compel you to purchase the sequel if you’re ever to find out the rest of the story.

With that off my chest, let us now consider the case of Moriarty, a follow-up to Horowitz’s 2011 Sherlock Holmes yarn, The House of Silk. Holmes doesn’t appear in Moriarty, which is set in 1891; even before page one, he’s already tumbled off Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, supposedly locked in a death grip with his most cunning nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. (Anyone who’s read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House” knows how that episode turned out.) Instead we’re thrust into the company of Frederick Chase, who describes himself as “a senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York,” and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, who Conan Doyle said in his 1890 novel, The Sign of the Four, was “not a bad fellow.” These two meet for the first time over the corpse of a man fished from beneath Reichenbach Falls and believed to be the elusive “Napoleon of crime,” Moriarty. Chase explains to Jones that he’s traveled to Europe in search of an agoraphobic American criminal mastermind named Clarence Devereaux, who was reportedly seeking a mutually beneficial (or destructive, depending on your viewpoint) alliance with Moriarty--an association seemingly confirmed by a coded missive sewn into the corpse’s coat lining. With haste these two launch upon Devereaux’s trail, hunting down a pair of brothers who were, well, thick as thieves with Chase’s quarry; unearthing a robbery scheme also tied to Devereaux; and eventually conning their way into the U.S. legation in London (and the company of Robert T. Lincoln, President Lincoln’s only surviving son). Jones and Chase serve well as stand-ins for Holmes and Dr. John Watson; Jones has even made an obsessive study of the Great Detective’s methods. When this pair start to talk about forming a professional partnership (“London needs a new consulting detective,” Chase says at one point), you can almost see Horowitz imagining the possibilities in that arrangement.

Yet matters are never as straightforward as they appear here. Gruesome killings take place without clear reason. (Horowitz’s 1890s London wears a heavier mantle of grime, despair, and violence than Conan Doyle’s ever did.) Shadowy figures show up in the ta-da nick of time to rescue our investigating duo, and too-convenient clues are found. Everything ties together when you learn the twist at the end (or figure it out earlier, as I did), but some readers may not make it that far; that it is necessary for Horowitz’s narrator to explain finally--and for page after page--every plot turn shows how much the author concealed in order to achieve his “high concept.”

Conan Doyle fans will likely enjoy Horowitz’s frequent allusions to Holmes’ famous cases, and any reader should come quickly to appreciate the determined sleuth and family man Athelney Jones, who does not fit Watson’s stereotype of the bumbling Scotland Yarder. That Horowitz makes you feel as if you’re experiencing a Holmes and Watson adventure without either of those two characters featuring on the page is a notable achievement. Still, it’s frustrating that Moriarty manipulates the reader at its close, throwing down sweeteners in order that you might be enticed to fork over another $26.99 for Book Two. If that sequel were available next week, the scheme might work. That we’ll have to wait at least another year for it lowers the odds.

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