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 Holy Thief-William Ryan

The Holy ThiefGregorin’s voice sounded guarded. “He mentioned she was mutilated.  Tortured, you say?  The poor woman, I only hope you catch the killer quickly.  A madman by the sound of it.”

“Well, Comrade Colonel, it wasn’t pretty.  Not pretty at all.  He used electricity to burn her–I’ve never come across that before.  I wondered whether it was a method State Security had ever encountered.”

Korolev’s question hung in the air like an artillery shell at the top of its flight and Korolev didn’t have to look at Yasimov to know he’d now gone deathly pale.

Gregorin, however, after a long pause merely sighed.  “Comrade Korolev, you’ll be well aware that torture is prohibited by the Soviet Criminal Code as a means of interrogation.  You aren’t suggesting that the NKVD would ever flout that prohibition, are you?”

Source: Bought copy.

Publisher:  Minotaur Books

Publication Date:  August 31, 2010

1936…

Captain Alexei Korolev is a well-regarded detective within the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia.  He’s a rising star within the C.I.D., having just come off a case in which he tracked down and apprehended a serial rapist, so when a young woman is found brutally murdered—tortured—and left posed on the altar of a derelict church, his superiors put him on the case, knowing he has the best chance of solving her murder.  Korolev is methodical and relentless, using his mind rather than brute force to elicit confessions, bolstering his resolve with both a fine sense of duty and empathy for the victim.  He’s also a modern Soviet man, convinced that while the methods of the State are sometimes unnecessarily harsh, it’s not his place to question why but rather to go about his business and remain as apolitical as he can.  After all, it’s safer that way.

When a Chekist colonel with his own suspicious agenda takes an interest in the case, coupled with the circumstances of the young woman’s torture—reminiscent of interrogation methods used by the Soviet Secret Police—Korolev realizes that this extraordinary case is a tangled web that he must most carefully unravel without incurring the wrath of an utterly ruthless organization.  But what is the connection between a young girl and the State security apparatus? And what is her connection to a thief whose body turns up shortly thereafter bearing wounds that share the same hallmark?  Discovering the truth of the matter will be no small feat.  One small misstep and his life, and that of those around him, will be forfeit to a paranoid regime that values secrecy over life.

With The Holy Thief, William Ryan has created not just a compelling mystery but a stunningly realistic portrayal of the subtle horror of everyday life under the Soviets.  Ryan has set his story in 1936, just before the advent of the Great Purge, in which Joseph Stalin’s cronies “cleansed” both the Communist Party and government of what they considered to be, “enemies of the people.”  This purge later evolved into wide-scale repression of the peasantry and eventually gutted the Red Army leadership, leaving them ill-prepared for war with Germany in 1941.  When the novel begins, things have not progressed to that point, yet Korolev and his compatriots in the C.I.D. are very conscious of the danger involved in any perceived criticism of the State or its methods.

There are several themes woven into The Holy Thief, most importantly the interaction of personal Religion and State sponsored Atheism.  As our protagonist, Korolev proves himself time and again to have an ingrained respect for and belief in religion, but as a modern Soviet man, he’s theoretically an Atheist.  Reality is more complicated.  Religion may be banned under the Soviets, but the traditions and faith of the people remain a hidden yet omnipresent fact of life, and Korolev goes to great lengths to hide his personal belief.  He secrets a bible in his apartment, unconsciously uses religious phrases and looks upon the desecration of the church by the Komsomol with disgust, even while extolling the virtues of Communism.  It soon becomes obvious that the vicious crimes he’s investigating are connected to the value people put on religious artifacts, specifically, the religious Icons that hold sway over a society firmly rooted in belief in the supernatural.

The second major theme running through the novel is the ubiquitous fear pervading Soviet society under the reign of Stalin.  The citizens of Moscow are living in a time and place where the State intrudes into every facet of life and with that intrusion comes the realization that everyone, from lowliest peasant to highest official, could be taken at any time for any reason by agents of State security.  This fear is highlighted in the relationship between Korolev and his superior, General Popov.  It’s a sure sign of the overwhelming power of the State when a man of such an important position within the city militia is fearful of speaking bluntly to a subordinate in the nominal privacy of his own office.  Yet both Korolev and Popov have seen the results of appearing critical of the party or its ideology, and by the end of the novel Korolev has experienced it directly.

As for the characters of The Holy Thief, they are essential to the appeal of the novel.  Korolev, for instance, is refreshingly real.  He’s not the superhuman detective that inhabits many mystery novels.  He’s intelligent mind you, but not overly so.  Nor is he a superhuman physical specimen.  When hit, he suffers the consequences, and they stick with him.  Hell, in the latter half of the novel, he’s dealing with the physical, sometimes debilitating effects of a self-inflicted concussion. He’s also a morally conflicted character, witnessing the excesses of the revolution but still ideologically naïve enough to believe that these excesses are necessary to further the cause of international Socialism.  I will admit that he is surrounded by somewhat stock characters.  The earnest rookie, embodied in his protégé, Semionov, the consummate lickspittle, embodied in Larinin, the wizened superior, embodied in Popov—all stock mystery characters, yet their familiarity to the reader is not detrimental to the story.  If anything, they lend a certain authenticity to Korolev, being personalities we’ve all met at one time or another.  As for Gregorin, the Chekist colonel, while it’s easy to see him for the villain he is, Ryan manages to keep his motivation a secret until late in the novel and leaves the reader wondering what his role in the dastardly affair is.

I don’t usually feel the need to comment on world-building with regards to mysteries, generally saving it for talk of Sci-fi or Fantasy novels, but it must be examined for a moment here.  Ryan has managed to build a convincingly realistic portrayal of Soviet society and specifically that of Moscow in the late thirties.  From the Metropol Hotel to Tomsky Stadium, home of FC Spartak and one of the novel’s murder locations, Ryan has paid close attention to detail, right down to the team’s nickname.  Accurate portrayals of Petrovka Street and the Moscow Criminal Police headquarters, the Komsomol club in a former church on Razin Street and the novel’s central crime scene, even the scene in an interrogation room of the dreaded Lubyanka lend a ring of historical accuracy to the novel.  One cannot be help feeling immersed in the life and times of a certain Captain Korolev, right down to the specific model of cars driven and the brand of cigarettes he smokes.

The Holy Thief is a beautifully constructed novel of what can only be called Soviet Noir and a wonderful introduction to the life and times of Alexei Korolev, investigator of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Moscow Militia and whose exploits I look forward to in the next novel of the series, The Darkening Field.

A

The Last Policeman–Ben H. Winters

policeman_winner-cover_Layout 1“I’m sorry, what did you say you were looking for?”

“I don’t know yet. An investigation’s proper course cannot be mapped in advance.  It follows each piece of information forward to the next one.”

“Oh yeah?”  When the young woman raises her eyebrows, it creates delicate furrows on her forehead.  “It sounds like you’re quoting from a textbook or something.”

Detective Henry Palace has a whole host of problems.  He’s got a moon bat sister whose equally ditzy husband is missing.  His fellow detectives no longer seem to be taking their jobs seriously.  He’s got a dead body hung in a McDonald’s washroom that everyone from the district attorney to the forensic examiner has determined is a suicide, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  He’s also going to be dead in six months.

When it was finally determined that a 6.5 kilometer asteroid known as 2011GV, a.k.a. “Maia” is definitely going to hit the earth within six months, society fell apart.  Many people quit their jobs to pursue their “bucket lists”; many others chose to end things on their own terms, with pills, a gun, or dangling at the end of a rope.  Still others continued on with their daily lives through force of habit, either pretending nothing was wrong or simply not knowing what else to do.  Henry Palace is one of the lucky ones, in that he’s right where he wants to be.  He’s dreamed of being a detective since childhood, and finally realized it in the months preceding the discovery of Maia.  End of the world or not, Palace is doing what he loves, so when Peter Zell, insurance salesman and purveyor of pretty much the least useful service you could think of in a pre-apocalyptic world, ends up hanging from a belt in a dirty washroom, it looks like an open and shut case of suicide.  At least it does to everyone but Palace.  Something’s just not right, something innocuous, but curious at the same time.  If you’re going to kill yourself—why buy a new belt?

Thus begins Ben H. Winter’s Edgar award-winning, The Last Policeman, a novel which explores what it means to solve crime in a world where it really doesn’t matter.

The Last Policeman is a police procedural in unusual times.  Henry Palace has to deal with both a dysfunctional society and the eroding infrastructure of a fictionalized Concord, New Hampshire which only gets worse as the end nears.  Basic modern technology such as the internet and cell phone service are spotty at best.  Simple forensics such as toxicology reports are hard to come by, and even fueling a departmental car is a daunting proposition.  A man who prefers a life of structure and reason, Palace is stubbornly rule bound and methodical, yet willing to bypass those investigative rules–if necessary–in his dogged pursuit of the truth.  He’s also got a well-honed sense of decency.  Where a meal costs tens of thousands of dollars due to the collapse of the banking system and the resulting hyper-inflation, he still tips well, even though he can’t really afford it.  When he discovers an unsavory aspect to the deceased Peter Zell’s past that might explain suicide as a likely scenario, he doesn’t just bow to popular opinion, and when his sister implores him to find her missing husband, family duty requires he follow-up.

The list of possible suspects is short, but the author provides us with enough theories that the reader isn’t aware of the culprit, or even if there is one, until late in the novel. Was it Zell’s boyhood friend with whom he had a falling out?  Could Zell’s suspiciously disinterested sister or her family have a role in his death?  As an insurance salesman unlikely to pay out policies in the face of the apocalypse, could it be a disgruntled customer?  And what is Zell’s connection with the charming Ms. Naomi Eddes, personal assistant to his boss and first noticed by Palace as she hurriedly walked away from the McDonald’s Zell’s body was found in?

When I started reading The Last Policeman, I expected a maudlin and depressing novel.  After all, he’s writing about the futility of doing your job when you know it’s most likely all going to end within a short period of time.  However, in Henry Palace we find a case study of a man who is, as I said earlier, right where he wants to be.  True, I’m sure he doesn’t want to be facing the apocalypse, but lacking an alternative, he’s making the best of a bad situation and relishes the thought of a mystery he can solve.  Palace obviously has a strong sense of duty, taking his job seriously while others simply go through the motions, but the reader gets the impression that his determination to prove this suicide is not suicide stems not just from duty, but also an unwillingness to accept what he feels in his gut is wrong, and maybe an attempt to resolve demons from his own past. Perhaps in the end, he feels he owes it to history to wrap up the details, and not allow Zell’s death to be misrepresented.

The Last Policeman is written from Palace’s point of view in a style that constantly demonstrates his methodical nature, both dealing with those around him and with his investigation.  It’s also a broader look into dealing with the unthinkable, whether people will rise to the occasion or sink into behavior that at any other time would be unconscionable.  Ben H. Winters deserves much kudos for a thoughtful and intelligent mystery that has garnered him an Edgar award for “Best Paperback Original” of 2013.  It’s also the first in a trilogy of his apocalyptic mysteries featuring Henry Palace.  Winters’ second novel, Countdown City, is out now.

A