You don't need to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes to know of Professor Moriaty, the original arch-villain, the Napoleon of Crime. Of course, he has always had to play second fiddle to the Great Detective. `Professor Moriaty: The Hound of the d'Urbervilles' sets out to give us his story - Moriaty's adventures beyond the Reichenbach Falls. Newman gives us a witty, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable inversion of the Holmes canon.
Although a novel, the book appears to be collection of short stories, aping the form of the Holmes collections. The stories twist the Holmesian originals. Moriaty breeds wasps not bees. Colonel Sebastian Moran (Moriaty's former right hand man in `The Return of Sherlock Holmes') is our Watson, narrating the stories. The titles mimic Doyle's originals: from `A Volume in Vermillion' through to `The Problem of the Final Adventure'. Their plots similarly either are inspired by, intertwine with or springboard off the original stories. There is a joy in recognising the allusions to Watson's accounts of events (though there are footnotes to help out when your memory fails) or characters from them. Irene Adler turns up, for example, to frustrate Holmes's dark mirror too (`To Moriaty she was always that bitch.')
Whilst an amusing conceit in itself, this could easily become somewhat one note and tiring over the course of more than 450 pages. What gives it life is the way that Newman interweaves these elements from Doyle with other creations and the language used to express it.
Newman plunders freely from other literature of the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. Hardy's Wessex provides us with the d'Urberville family of the title story (and also other Wessex characters such as the reddleman from `Return of the Native'). Various members of the cast from `The Prisoner of Zenda' show up, as do Fu Manchu (under an alias), Raffles, the Maltese Falcon and some more obscure fictional objects and people. One doesn't need to get every reference to enjoy the feeling of recognition as these elements are woven into the narrative.
Perhaps the greatest achievement here though is Colonel Sebastian `Basher' Moran himself. It is after all his voice that gives life to the characters and the story. And what a charming rogue he is - a cross between George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and Mark Gatiss's Lucifer Box. Amusing and smart, he seems utterly unimpressed by the intellectual aspects of the adventures and contests. Like Bertie Wooster, he makes his Jeeves look all the brighter by having an entirely different outlook and set of interests. He also has a fine line in witty metaphor and simile. A thug reunited with a much used cosh `hug[s] the cane like a long-missing gold coin.'
This may not be deepest book I've read this year, it might not engage the truth of the human condition as much as some, but it has been one of the most pleasurable to read. Any fan of Holmes stories or of Flashman-esque capers might want to check this out.