I picked up Kim Newman’s Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles with a certain amount of trepidation, as I tend to avoid anything that comes off as professional fan fiction. Likely because other than The Wide Saragasso Sea, the majority of authors who “take up the thread” long after a book has been published — and its copyright has conveniently lapsed — produce less-than-adequate follow-ups to their beloved originals.
Like March, The Independence of Miss Marry Bennet, Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer, and a host of other professional fanfictions, Moriarty continues in the tradition of re-writing or continuing the story from the point of view of a marginalized character. In this case, Professor Moriarty — Sherlock Holmes’s sometimes-nemesis.
Moriarty was clearly green-lit due to the new-found interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary mystery series, sparked by both the big-screen Guy Ritchie adaptations with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as well as the small-screen BBC series staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, respectively. One made a lot of money, the other won a lot of awards, and so together the movie and show have contributed to a rise in the sales of Doyle’s original novels, paving the way for new entries into the market, like Moriarty.
I’m only partway through the book at this stage, but there are already a couple of things that bother me. First, to be clear, the writing is fine. It’s fun, it’s engaging and the author even threw in a Princess Bride-esque frame narrative in which a scholar “discovered” the writings of Col. Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s company and co-conspirator, and decided to edit his entries into a book.
It seems natural to mirror the storytelling technique of Sherlock by having Moran narrate Moriarty’s escapades, but wouldn’t it have been a little more novel and innovative to have Moriarty narrate his own story? While it’s interesting to read Watson’s account of Holmes’s crime-solving abilities, there has to be some desire to hear how the hyper-analytical minds of Holmes and Moriarty work from the men themselves.
The second issue I’m encountering is this: if Moriarty and Moran are being presented as these perfect mirror-opposites of Holmes and Watson, why are they so cartoonishly evil? Although Moran claims that Moriarty gets more pleasure from devising crime than committing it, his descriptions of Moriarty’s experiments (like a kitten he’s pinned with a knife to test the effects of morphine) are so black-hat bad that they really don’t capture the neutrality of the original twosome.
Holmes and Watson aren’t superheroes. Instead, Sherlock is hired as a detective and paid to solve crimes. The BBC Sherlock series even goes so far as to suggest that Sherlock is a little self-obsessed, more interested in showing off his mental prowess than he is in helping people.
With that said, I’m still keeping an open mind that the story will pick up — right now, it feels as though the author is spending so much time showing her readers how much her characters are Not!Holmes and Not!Watson that she’s slacking on the actual plot.