Who Thinks Evil–Michael Kurland

 

 

 

 

WhoThinksEvil“We need, we must have something–someone–different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm.  Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and illicit, and who is trusted by these men who trust no one.”

“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”

“Exactly!” said the Duke, thumping a thick forefinger on the arm of his chair.

“So you’ve sent for me,” said Moriarty.

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: March 7, 2014

The year is 1890, two years since “Saucy Jack” preyed on the prostitutes of London’s East End, yet he’s still very much on the mind of many a streetwalker as they go about their illicit business.  From the dimly lit streets of Whitechapel to the bedrooms of posh “gentlemen’s clubs”, horror at the Ripper’s crimes and anger at the inability of the Metropolitan Police to bring him to heel are still fresh.  When a prostitute at one of London’s more fashionable bawdy houses is murdered in a manner reminiscent of the Ripper, the forces of Scotland Yard and agents of the Queen herself are gathered to both quell rumours of his reappearance and catch the perpetrator on the sly—before the cauldron that is public opinion boils over into violence.  Complicating their surreptitious investigation is the identity of their prime suspect, the last known patron of the victim—namely one Albert Victor—Crown Prince and heir to the throne of England.  Further complicating matters—his sudden disappearance and the inability of both his minders and the police to find him.  Victoria’s men have their work cut out for them—either prove the heir apparent’s innocence or bring him to justice without jeopardizing the royal succession.

Meanwhile, the one man (Sherlock Holmes aside) capable of unravelling the various threads of this royal plot is languishing in the deepest cells of Newgate Prison, himself the victim of an elaborate frame-job.  Who else but Professor James Moriarty, a.k.a. the “Napoleon of Crime’, would have the contacts and resources within the criminal underworld, not to mention the criminal insight, to stop this fiendish scheme?  With the enthusiastic help of American journalist Benjamin Barnett, Moriarty’s diminutive majordomo Mummer Tolliver and the rather reluctant help of the brothers Holmes, Moriarty must solve the murder, clear the name of the heir to the throne and thereby provide his own salvation.

Michael Kurland wrote the first of his Moriarty novels, The Infernal Device in 1978, going on to write three sequels, the last published in 2006.  Since then, the Napoleon of Crime has been on hiatus, at least until the publication of Who Thinks Evil earlier this year.  Previously only attainable in e-book format, the entire series is now becoming available as Titan Books reissues the series for those eager to add Moriarty’s tales to their collection of Holmesian novels.

As a fan of the Holmes mythos but not having read Kurland’s earlier novels, I found myself looking forward to seeing the world as Moriarty does, and as a result was far from disappointed with this unique spin on the Consulting Detective’s nemesis.  Instead of the one dimensional epitome of evil one thinks of upon hearing the name “Moriarty”, Kurland has created a well-rounded villain, both nuanced and with depth of character.  Professor James Moriarty is not evil for evil’s sake, but rather a practitioner of a certain “pragmatic” evil. Moriarty’s crimes are revealed as selfishly altruistic—necessary to fund his scientific endeavors and therefore essential to the betterment of mankind.  Perhaps selfishly altruistic is not the right phrase—narcissistically altruistic?  Either way, the practice of science can be expensive and Moriarty is more pragmatic than malicious in his affairs.

James Moriarty is an unusual character, having evolved over the years from a minor (yet consequential) character in the Holmes canon to a legend towering above lesser literary villains.  Kurland treats Moriarty as a misunderstood genius and flips the relationship between Moriarty and Holmes and their relative claims to brilliance on its head.  In Who Thinks Evil, Holmes is not so much Moriarty’s equal but a decidedly lesser intellect— almost “Lestrade- like.”

Whereas inspector Lestrade traditionally plays an inept counterpoint to Holmes obvious aptitude for affairs deductive, in this tale Holmes himself acts the comic foil.  Sherlock may indeed be the world’s foremost “Consulting Detective”, but Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime,” and by far the superior intellect. Kurland amuses the reader time and again as we watch Holmes’ bumbling efforts to “unmask” Moriarty’s villainy.  One scene in particular demonstrates Moriarty’s easy intellectual superiority and involves the delivery of tea and cookies for Holmes to enjoy whilst the consulting detective “surreptitiously” surveils Moriarty from a bush.  Sherlock’s scientific method of observation is so much more finely honed in Moriarty and this, combined with both an eidetic memory and startlingly high I. Q. makes Holmes a simpleton by comparison.  Yet Moriarty respects Holmes even though he can be (and is) a great nuisance to Moriarty’s affairs.  Given every chance to remove the meddlesome Holmes from the equation, Moriarty proves his malicious nature more myth than fact.

Just as Holmes needs a biographer in the form of Dr. John Watson, Kurland provides Moriarty his own chronicler in Benjamin Barnett, another man of letters and associate by way of gratitude for the help Moriarty afforded him years earlier.  He’s clearly Moriarty’s stand in for Watson and a capable sleuth in his own right.  Together with Mummer Tolliver, they act as Moriarty’s proxy in the hunt for the murderer of London’s prostitutes while he focuses his time on foiling the plot to undermine the monarchy.

Overall an excellent novel, there are a few quibbles to be had with Who Thinks Evil, the first of which is whether or not this is actually a mystery or more properly—a thriller.  To me, the hallmark of a good mystery is how the author handles the Reveal—that moment when everything comes together and we as readers know exactly whodunit.  Once you have the Reveal, there’s no longer a mystery, hence the earlier the Reveal, the less the novel is a mystery and the more a thriller.  Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a good example of this.  We as readers know within a couple of chapters who the killer is—mystery solved, as it were.  Granted, the protagonist(s) don’t solve the mystery until much later in the novel, but there’s no mystery left for the reader.  At that point the novel becomes a thriller, and if handled properly, it’s not too much of a letdown to know the identity of the culprit before the protagonist does.  I myself enjoy a good mystery, preferring to figure things out for myself or be surprised at the end of the novel rather than knowing too much too soon.  In other words, I like some mystery in my mystery.

Who Thinks Evil relinquishes the pretense of being a mystery about halfway through, once the antagonist(s) are introduced and we start seeing things from their viewpoint.  From then on, it’s a straight line to thriller and the suspense no longer lies in whodunit, but rather how Moriarty and company will resolve the situation.  Thankfully, Kurland adeptly makes the transition from mystery to thriller, leaving the reader satisfied without feeling ripped off by the early reveal.

The second quibble I had with Who Thinks Evil revolves around the climax of the novel.  In the moment when Moriarty’s plans have all come together and the trap is set, something happens that makes a shambles of his meticulous preparations.  An unforeseen turn of events demonstrates that all the planning in the world is subject to the vagaries of fate.  It’s more outrageous fortune than meticulous schemes that foil the conspirators, and not so much a matter of giant intellect as having a girl who’s handy with a hatpin.

However, these are mere quibbles that don’t ever rise to the level of complaint. All in all, Michael Kurland has demonstrated a unique perspective with regards to the accepted mythos of Sherlock Holmes and enlightened us as readers to the misunderstood brilliance that is Professor James Moriarty.

B+

 

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The Yard–Alex Grecian

The Yard“Breath through your mouth, Mr Day.  The odor isn’t pleasant.”

Day nodded, panting heavily.

“I suppose it is Mr Little.  But what have they done to him?”

You can see what’s been done.  The question is why has it been done?”

“It’s inhuman.”

“I’m afraid it’s all too human.”

I am not a fan of the “Columbo method of mystery writing.  While it worked well on-screen for Peter Falk, as far as I’m concerned, if you let the reader know the identity of the villain at the top of the story, it’s no longer a mystery, but rather a thriller.  I much prefer a mystery where the reader is given as much chance as possible to discover the culprit before the author gives us the big reveal.  Even Sherlock Holmes, who almost invariably had things solved well before the end of the story,  let the reader follow along without knowing until the last second–whodunit?  So, I expected to be much disappointed with Alex Grecian’s The Yard, a novel where the identity of the culprit is known within the first few chapters.  However, extenuating circumstances turned what could have been a straight out thriller into a nicely rounded mystery.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard

First, let us set the scene.  The year is 1889, and it’s been a year since Saucy Jack, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper has haunted the streets of Whitechapel, carving up prostitutes and taunting the good detectives of Scotland Yard to stop his reign of mayhem.  Detective Inspector Walter Day is on his first week of service with the Yard, and catches his first case—the murder of a fellow detective, stabbed and left in a trunk on the platform of one of London’s busiest transit stations. It’s a situation that’s doubly uncomfortable for the newly minted detective, feeling the pressure to both impress his fellow detectives and to solve the murder of one of Scotland Yard’s own. Thrust into a situation that would test the mettle of even a seasoned detective, Day follows the forensics, with the help of Dr. Bernard Kingsley, coroner and advocate of this new field of scientific inquiry.  Has Saucy Jack returned?  Or is there a new madman haunting the streets of London?  Day and Kingsley resolve to find out before the killer strikes again.

Intertwined with Day’s story is that of Constable Neville Hammersmith, obsessed with his own inquiry into the death of a chimney sweep’s assistant, a five year old boy left to die trapped in a flue when he becomes stuck.  Hammersmith is met with derision by the detective assigned to the case, who would rather chalk the enquiry up to “death by misadventure” rather than pursue the chimneysweep who left one of London’s child labourers to die alone in the dark.  Hammersmith refuses to let the matter go, spurred by his own experiences as a child in the coal mines of  Wales and his desire to punish those that would use a child as a tool to be thrown away when broken.  When his own inquiry involves the prominent doctor whose house the dead child was discovered in, a series of events is unleashed that eventually involves Hammersmith in the lives of Day and Inspector Michael Blacker, their work on the murder of Inspector Christian Little, and a third set of murders that Blacker is convinced Little was close to solving when he met his end.

The Yard is split into several narratives, written from the point of view of the various detectives, constable Hammersmith, Doctor Kingsley, and, interspersed throughout the story, the murderer, allowing us as readers some insight into the killer’s motivations.  However, very early on the identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader—we’ll call that the “Columbo Effect”—something that usually ruins the mystery for me as a reader.  I like a mystery to be a mystery, and once you know who the murderer is, as I said earlier—that’s a thriller.  Grecian manages to save the mystery aspect by very deftly intertwining a series of actual mysteries into the narrative, and providing motivation for the villain’s crime from his/her point of view.  It’s very much the Columbo method/effect, but the author manages to make it work.

The Yard is also an intriguing study of the birth of forensics, in the form of Doctor Kingsley.  A medical examiner on retainer to Scotland Yard, he’s obsessed with forensic science and pathology, specifically a new method of identification involving the use of an individual’s fingerprints.  He’s also clearly modeled on Dr. Joseph Bell, or possibly the less known Henry Littlejohn, the former being the template used by Sir Arthur

Joseph Bell

Joseph Bell

Conan Doyle when he created Sherlock Holmes.  Back to Kingsley—he’s also a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology, and when the reader first meets him, he’s elbow deep in an autopsy, with his daughter (and assistant) drawing diagrams of the procedure for future reference.

Alex Grecian also gives a patina of authenticity to this Victorian mystery with the inclusion of many subtle examples of life in Victorian England.  Hammersmith and his roommate, constable Colin Pringle, share a room due to their relative poverty and ration both food and second hand tea (infused with copper to give some semblance of taste) simply to get by.  The author also gives insight into the use of child labour at the time, whether it be as chimney sweep assistants or working in the mines, and demonstrates the obvious lack of social services for the poor or mentally ill.  The climax of the novel takes place round and about one of the many workhouses that dotted London at the time, and provides a look at the squalid conditions of life in Victorian London, juxtaposed with the relative opulence of life amongst the upper crust of society.  Even the murder squad at Scotland Yard is shockingly deficient.  Composed of a small unit within the metropolitan police force, it’s hard to imagine the evolution of such a ragtag bunch of detectives into the cultural and investigative icon of today’s Scotland Yard.

My final analysis—The Yard is more thriller than mystery, but Grecian manages to weave enough of the investigative process into the novel that the reader is able to overlook the premature reveal and end up with a ripping good read.  I look forward to the sequel, The Black Country, out in Hardcover now.BlackCountry

B

 

Alex Grecian maintains a website at alexgrecian.com.

Alex Grecian’s The Yard has my attention

The Yard

Anyone who knows me and my book habits will know that I’m a sucker for anything “Holmesian,” and frankly, anything to do with Scotland Yard has the same effect. I’ve always had a soft spot for the beleaguered Inspector Lestrade and his fellow colleagues, especially those of the Murder Squad.  Imagine my excitement then while browsing at my favourite discount book store and coming across a hardback copy of Alex Grecian’s  The Yard

The Yard chronicles the life of inspector Walter Day, newly inducted into Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad just a year after their failure to apprehend “Saucy Jack”–a.k.a. “Jack the Ripper.”  At a time when morale is down, he has the unfortunate luck to be assigned to solve the case of a body dumped at a local railway station.  The body of a fellow Murder Squad detective.

A Victorian murder mystery involving Scotland Yard solving the murder of one of their own?  Sign me up!

A brief look at Alex Grecian’s website elicited a fair bit of excitement on my part. Firstly, The Yard is intended to be the debut of a larger series.  Secondly, the sequel, The Black Country, is scheduled to be released in hardback on May 21st.  And thirdly–The Yard has its own book trailer:

Review to follow…

The Crack In the Lens–Steve Hockensmith

“He knows who done it,” Old Red said.  “I’m sure of it.  All we gotta do is get him to say the name.”

“So find a way.  Another way.  Do it like Holmes would.  Use your brain.”

Gustav tried to spin away with the shears, but I managed to hold him in place.

“It’s Holmes brought us here!” he roared. “The Method ain’t workin’!”

“It’s what we got!”

 “It ain’t enough!”

The brothers Amlingmeyer are back in town!  That town being San Marcos, where Gustav once lived as a cow puncher, having loved and lost a girl named Adeleine.  She was a “soiled dove”, a working girl whose murder made less than any impact on the rough and tumble town, but plenty on the elder Amlingmeyer, who, having studied the “deducifying” ways of one Sherlock Holmes in the interim, has finally returned to town (his younger, and self-described, “handsomer” brother Otto in tow) to give her the justice she deserves.

San Marcos is not the town he remembers.  Proselytising bands of zealots roam the streets and law and order is the rule of the day.  Even the old whorehouse has been made over into a wallpaper shop.  Yet a good time is still to be had, those delving in the fleshly trade having been moved just outside city limits, beyond the reach of either God or his lawmen.

Yet lawmen are useless to the brothers Amlingmeyer.  Milford Bales, the local Marshal (and former friend of Gustav) wants them gone.  He has his own ideas as to what (or whom) befell Adeleine, and those suspicions fall (suspiciously) close to home.  Sheriff Rucker’s in the pocket of the pimps, Ragsdale and Bock, neither of whom wish the case to be re-opened.  Bad for business, you know.  Even Gustav is proving less than useful.  His normally well honed method has fallen by the wayside, and he himself is prone to conclusion jumping.  He’s off his game, and its going to take a clear head to sort things out.  Otto seems to have the only clear head around, so it’s up to him to step up and fill the position–before “Texas Jack” strikes again.

Once again, Steve Hockensmith delivers a tale full of quirky characters, from Brother Landrigan, leader of the local parish, an autonomous sect known as the Shepherd of the Hills Assembly of the Living God (whew!  That’s a mouthful), to big Bess, a whore whose name is a bit of an understatement.  Then there’s the Krieger’s, local librarians/death portrait photographers, and of course, Ragsdale and Bock, “honest” businessmen by day, the western equivalent of mobsters by night.

Gustav and Otto are also a  pair of characters, one the illiterate follower of the Holmesian method (and partial to big whiskers, ten gallon hats and angry mumbling), the other an aspiring author and gentleman with a quick wit and flair for things genteel.  A study in contrasts, Cowboy Holmes and a jovial Watson.  

The Crack in the Lens is the fourth novel in the Holmes on the Range series, and the least “Holmesian” of the bunch.  But that’s the point of the novel.  Gustav has lost “the method,” blinded by rage and grief and the desire for revenge, and it’s only when circumstances force him to follow the method that he’s able to recapture his rhythm and solve the crime(s).   I love a good mystery, especially a mystery where the culprit is not immediately identifiable, and in this, Hockensmith once again prevails.  An added twist, the addition of a Whitechapel connection, lends  a bit of intrigue to the novel.  Is Texas Jack a copycat, or the infamous Jack the Ripper, come to America to continue his spree in the relative anonymity of the open spaces of the West?

Another thing–generally, the rule of thumb when writing is to “show”, not “tell.”  But how does that work, when the narrator is telling a novel sized story?  In this case, pretty damn well.  Otto is not one for a lot of descriptive flair, but “tells” the story as if you were sitting around the campfire.  A lot of dialogue, not so much description.  That’s where the magic lies in a Hockensmith novel–witty banter rather than long-winded descriptions.

Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range mysteries and both the prequel and sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  He maintains a blog at www.stevehockensmith.com.