Every once in a while it sounds like fun to dip into the rushing waters of the Sherlock Holmes fanfiction river and see what’s new. Anthony Horowitz, author of The House of Silk and the Alex Rider YA series and screenwriter for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, is the newest author to try his hand at writing Sherlock Holmes-type fiction, and he’s not bad at it. HarperCollins publishers sent me an advance copy of his newest novel Moriarty and I enjoyed the way he gets some of the language, the feel, and the Sherlock-Holmes type clues right. The one thing he doesn’t do all that well is to allow readers to indulge their own clue-following prowess. Although his readers may guess the twist, they aren’t allowed enough of the clues to put very much of it together; it has to be doled out to them in tiny spoon-fed bites by the very last chapter.
The author of the piece, who identifies himself as Frederick Chase, an agent of the New York Pinkerton Detectives, asks some of the questions readers have been asking ever since the Reichenbach Falls episode was published: “What on earth is [Colonel Sebastian Moran] doing there? Was he present when Holmes and Moriarty fought and, if so, why didn’t he try to help? Where is his gun? Has the greatest marksman in the world accidentally left it on the train?”
Chase and Athelney Jones, of Scotland Yard, work together to solve the mystery of the body recovered from the Reichenbach Falls and the coded message they find in the lining of its coat, one that leads them to pursue a criminal named Clarence Devereux across London. Jones “has read everything that Mr Holmes has ever written. He has studied his methods and replicated his experiments….He has…made Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life.” Jones uses Holmes’ methods throughout the story, identifying Chase as a Pinkerton’s agent from a symbol engraved on his watch casing and revealing a man who seemed to be a barber as a member of the Red-Headed League:
“What we were presented with here was a barber’s shop that had been expressly designed to put off customers. Not only was the room filthy, but the barber’s own hair has been quite hideously cut. It would be a foolish soul who would allow the razor to come anywhere near their head in such a place or, for that matter, to purchase a hair tonic whose principal ingredient would appear to be glue. Why! I would be more comfortable at Sweeney Todd’s.”
Chase’s revelations capture some of the tone of Watson’s story-telling in descriptive passages like this one:
“Two wooden chairs had been set on either side of a fireplace but it was hard to imagine anyone wishing to sit in them, even for a moment, in this gloomy place.”
The exaggerated menace of statements like “I have heard his name mentioned and I have felt his presence” also adds to the general nineteenth-century atmosphere, as does the curious declaration, when Chase meets Jones’ intelligent wife, “it made me think that even Sherlock Holmes might have been a lesser detective had he chosen to marry.”
In the end, little is what it seems. Although the end of the story does not descend to the level of explaining that Sweeney Todd himself was working for Moriarty, it does tie together many of the questions Chase raises at the beginning all together for the reader in a tidy bow.