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 Bookman–Lavie Tidhar

“A myth,” he said. “Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths.  They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif.  Don’t dismiss myth, boy.  And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”  ~Gilgamesh

Orphan is his namesake, living one step from the streets of what in any other age would be called Victorian England, but with the coming of Les Lezards and the subsequent fall of the house of Hannover, mad King George (the lizard) has the throne.  It is an age of wind and steam, man and automaton, order and anarchy, the last embodied in the form of a terrorist named, “The Bookman.”

When Orphan’s paramour Lucy is killed in one of the Bookman’s attacks, Orphan is devastated, but after an encounter with inspector Adler (Irene) and the Byron simulacrum, he learns that death may not be all there is, and that what small hope there is of recovering his beloved lies in running the Bookman to ground.  Barring that…vengeance.

There are many forces at play in his majesty’s empire: Prime Minister Moriarty and the Lizards; Mycroft Holmes’ shadow government floating high above London in their black airships; the Turk, an automaton among automatons who yearn for the translation, a device that they hope will make them equal to their fellows of flesh and blood; and of course, Orphan.  All believe the Bookman (or his death) holds the answer to their various problems and that Orphan is a tool to be wielded in that pursuit.

Yet when Orphan finally finds the Bookman, he is offered a choice.  Help his nemesis to stop Les Lezards from launching a device into space that may be mankind’s salvation (or doom) and Lucy shall be returned, hale and unharmed.  Don’t help, and Lucy is lost forever.  Really not much of a choice for a young man in love.

From the heart of Britannia to the depths of the Caribs, Orphan journeys on his mission, beset by danger and double dealings, culminating in one final meeting with the Bookman, which will either see Lucy returned to him or  the destruction of that which the Bookman covets the most.

The Bookman is everything one would want out of a Steampunk novel, blending both science fiction and fantasy, historical and fictional personages, all with a twist on the original source materials.  Irene Adler is now an agent of Scotland Yard, Moriarty is Prime Minister, and Jules Verne is both author and adventurer.  Lord Byron is a simulacrum, Karl Marx a revolutionary, and then there’s  Orphan, who has a greater role to play in the Empire than ever he could guess. 

Sometimes though, it felt as though the writing had a tendency to meander.  I spent a lot of time reading of Orphan wandering the streets of London moping about his lost love when (for my part) I’d rather just see the story advance.  It’s not really wasted narrative, but sometimes slowed the story to a crawl.  Tidhar also has a habit of skipping forward in the narrative and writing scenes in retrospective.  There is a moment near the end of the novel where Moriarty and Orphan come face to face…and next you know Orphan is on the run with no real explanation of what happened.  When it does get explained, what seems like it should be a pivotal moment simply comes across as trite.

There is also surprisingly little interaction with the lizards during the course of the novel, but the one time we meet one, it is a pirate named Wyvern, and he is entirely unforgettable.  More lizards please!

As for the Bookman and Les Lezards, when their background is finally revealed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what was at first a fantasy novel had somehow morphed into science fiction with fantastical elements. 

The Bookman does leave a little too much unfinished by the end of the novel, but also leaves the reader (at least this one) with a desire to read more of Orphan’s exploits and to explore the Universe Lavie Tidhar has created.  Luckily for us, it is the first of a series of three, continuing with Camera Obscura  and the forthcoming The Great Game.  All in all, The Bookman is a wonderful novel and what minor flaws I’ve mentioned are just that– minor.

Lavie Tidhar maintains his own blog if ever you’d like to check out what’s new in his world.