Fishing for Red Herrings: Moriarty Book Review

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 stars.
I really liked this book the first time I read it. I liked the ending—I appreciated how unapologetically villainous Moriarty was. It was a breath of fresh air—“and [I] shot him in the head.” Very in keeping with the pragmatism of a man calculating enough to rival Sherlock Holmes himself. Yet, a basic “decency,” or whatever it might be termed, was something that Horowitz was careful to try and maintain in Moriarty since he established it to a certain extent in his previous Holmesian novel, The House of Silk. Difficult to do when you have your villain admitting to the slaughter of entire household, loosing an “underage sadist” upon the public, and then subsequently planning and executing the killing of a man that he admitted to having taken a liking to.

But Moriarty’s character isn’t quite so contradictory as these crimes seem to suggest—he literally believes himself not responsible for the action of killing the last man—he blames it quite naturally to him on someone else who “forced his hand.” It is, in fact, barely given a second thought. That, in an understated way, bespeaks something fascinating about Moriarty’s psyche and the extent to which he has detached himself from the immediacy of his actions—he has elevated himself to another level, at which mundane matters such as murder are simply to be regretted or endured, but not viewed as moral evil for which he can be culpable. Moriarty has elevated his own ambition to a force outside himself that he cannot act against, and therefore is not completely personally responsible for. It is a fascinating quality that deserves more development, in concert with his supposed “moral boundaries” as put forth in The House of Silk.

Unfortunately, this insight into the Moriarty character that Horowitz has built is so understated as to be almost undetectable—as is everything else of intrigue in the book. The detail that the Holmes-impressionist, Inspector Athelney Jones, has also read Edgar Allen Poe, whose C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales almost certainly gave Arthur Conan Doyle the pattern after which he modelled Sherlock Holmes, is mentioned as an Easter egg for the knowledgeable reader, but is not explained so as to benefit anyone who is unaware of the connection. It becomes simply another distracting detail with no significance. The moments of misdirection do not lead to any satisfying conclusion—like the detail that the mysterious man in the brougham “coughed,” making the reader wonder if it was the same man who was described as audibly hacking away in the room next to the narrator’s. But no, it was just a coincidence. It was a completely different man. The mysterious coughing man in the next room is just that—a coughing man. An annoying extraneous detail that simply irritates the reader like a tickle in the throat. The possibility that the coughing man in fact had a more significant identity is never given sufficient evidence, and the very idea that he is becomes ridiculous in the face of the fact that he literally does nothing but serve as a red herring throughout the entire story.

The whole story felt like a red herring, if it comes to that. What impressed me as clever and fresh the first time I read it simply lost its lustre upon re-read. I realised then that the twist is what makes or breaks this novel. If you know, or don’t appreciate, the twist, then the novel itself is incredibly unrewarding. I read about 100 pages in this time and realised that literally nothing had happened. Knowing the twist, there was nothing of depth and interest in the narrative leading up to it that really stood on its own as being particularly interesting or worthy of deeper consideration. For the majority of the first 75 pages, the two protagonists sit in an inn restaurant and simply talk at each other. Exposition, delivered in the driest method possible. The narrator says he is skipping a lot because, “my own life story will be of little interest to you.” To which Inspector Jones replies, “On the contrary, I am immersed.” If only I could say the same. It’s the talking head effect—nothing is happening, and, turns out, little of actual interest is communicated: it is simply, as I said, awash with red herrings.

A similar scene occurs near the middle of book (which I had completely forgotten, and no wonder, because it was so pointless) wherein all the inspectors and detectives of Scotland Yard gather to have a meeting and discuss the case—or, more accurately, discuss all the cases that they had variously worked on with Sherlock Holmes. Lestrade, Gregson, and the whole who’s-who of inspectors is there, never to appear with any real significance to the narrative again. It was like they were there to cameo and remind the reader of all the great cases Conan Doyle had written. But bringing them up only made me wish I was reading the original stories instead of Horowitz’s book, so it would have been better left out for all the good it did this narrative. So, too, Inspector Jones’ wife, who doesn’t trust the narrator from the beginning—for some unknown reason that is never given actual form to, unless the reader is meant to infer some vague impression of “woman’s intuition.” She may as well have been left out, too. It seemed, upon her appearance, that she was actually someone of some character and influence, as the narrator says. Yet, the proof is in the pudding—she actually has no practical impact on the story whatsoever. More potential turned red herring.

As for the purported villain of the piece—the shadowy and ruthless frame of an American gangster, Clarence Devereux—he is so bland and forgettable that I couldn’t even remember for the first half of the book if he was an actual person, or a decoy persona (“red herring” if you will), invented by the real villain to provide a fictitious target for the detectives. He turned out to be real, to my surprise and disappointment because he was so poorly written. In fact, all the Americans were rather clumsily caricatured as to be positively cartoonish. They certainly did not display any capacity whatsoever for being the real threat to Moriarty’s organization that they supposedly had become. The only remotely worthy representation of serious and intimidating gangsterism was a throat-slashing and shootout with the police on the docks, which I quite enjoyed.

But for all his 1-dimensional-ism, Devereux at least got a bit of a backstory, though it also turned out to contribute nothing to the narrative. By contrast, Inspector Jones gets cast as a rather pathetic Holmes fanboy, imitating his mannerisms and even being so desperate and deluded as to want to succeed him in his consulting rooms in Baker Street. There is no additional explanation for what psychological quirk could have turned Jones into such a monomaniacal obsessive try-hard, besides that his initial meeting with Holmes in The Sign of Four left him, an admittedly young and inexperienced policeman at the time, feeling humiliated and poorly portrayed by Watson in the story. So the logical upshot of that experience is that he would try and absorb the personality and methods of the person who he sees as humiliating him, to the extent that following that person’s death he wants to replace him in society? Sure, okay. No further explanation needed, I guess. As long as you’re happy with us forming exactly zero emotional attachment to this somewhat ridiculous character. All he needed to complete the picture was a disastrous attempt at picking up the violin.

What of the narrator, the Pinkerton Frederick Chase? He gets more effort at a personality, but is necessarily lacking, receding into the background as a Watsonian character, there to support and showcase the methods of Inspector Jones. In fact, often the narrative skips entire chunks of time, so that the only instances related are those in which Chase interacts with, is going to meet, or is sought out by Jones. Chase, as a result, gets little individuation of his own, showing alternately surprising obtuseness and uncharacteristic insights about the clues they encounter in the course of the investigation. He’s an inconsistent, uninteresting character, with a vagary of expression in describing his very fuzzy thought process. He does, unsurprisingly, turn out to be an unreliable narrator, feeding into the twist I was talking about, but am trying not to spoil.

Altogether, this is a fast paced book (once you plough through the exposition at the beginning) that doesn’t take long to read through. Though it didn’t stand up to a second reading for me (because, as I said, the reason I liked it so much the first time was exclusively due to the twist), I would recommend it to anybody interested to read once and enjoy the ride without thinking too hard about character development or even the plot. Any clues you notice that could turn into something significant later just turn out to be red herrings with no meaning, so you might as well just switch off your brain and grope along blindly beside Frederick Chase. That’s probably the way to enjoy it the most.

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