Thursday, August 06, 2015

Mitch Cullin – ‘Mr Holmes’ / Anthony Horowitz – ‘Moriarty’

Having enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk a few years ago, more or less as a guilty pleasure, I immediately resigned myself to Moriarty when it appeared in a Kindle Store sale recently, putting aside a book on Napoleon for one on the Napoleon of crime. It’s possible I may have resented Moriarty unfairly for this interruption, and also more than likely that it is not my kind of book: an action-packed thriller, with violence several notches above anything in Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, and stretched, too, over a longer distance than any of his Holmes novels. It doesn’t even have Sherlock Holmes in it, aside from the short story ‘The Three Monarchs’ included at the end. This story is excellent, a playful take on ‘The Six Napoleons’ (there he is again), with a murder and the theft of three jubilee souvenir statuettes of Queen Victoria from three neighbouring houses. Horowitz captures Dr Watson’s style to a T. In the main body of the novel, his narrator is Frederick Chase, ‘senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York’, who is a surrogate Dr Watson to Athelney Jones’ Sherlock Holmes. Jones is a Scotland Yard detective, featured unflatteringly in The Sign of Four, who has become obsessed with Holmes’ methods, and is determined to redeem himself for his earlier dunderheadedness. They meet in Switzerland, and view what appears to be the body of Moriarty, ‘fished out of the Reichenbach Brook’. In a concealed pocket they find a note in code, arranging a rendezvous in London with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind who has encroached on Moriarty’s territory in London, importing brutal American methods and generally raising hell. This is the starting point of their joint effort to eradicate him. More than that, it would be unfair to say – which is a shame, because the virtues of the book lie in the clever plotting and deception. I liked what happened more than the way in which it happened, which is why it isn’t my kind of book.

Mitch Cullin, writing in 2005 (of 1947), seems to have Horowitz’s number. This is the kind of thing which comes through the letter box of the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes:
There would be requests for magazine or radio interviews, and there would be pleas for help (a lost pet, a stolen wedding ring, a missing child, an array of other hopeless trifles best left unanswered). Then there were the yet-to-be-published manuscripts: misleading and lurid fictions based on his past exploits, lofty explorations in criminology, galleys of mystery anthologies – along with flattering letters asking for an endorsement, a positive comment for a future dust jacket, or, possibly, an introduction to a text. (p. 7)
‘Misleading and lurid’ is a perfect description of Moriarty – though not necessarily a criticism, since it sets out to be both. Mr Holmes (or A Slight Trick of the Mind as it was called before it was made into a film) is an altogether more gentle and straightforward novel. At least, it is if ‘straightforward’ means not concealing things for dramatic effect. From the point of view of character, it is far more complex, and tries to imagine an old and declining Holmes, trying to stave off the effects of old age and coming to terms with the few things which, almost despite his efforts, he has come to hold dear. Chief of which is his apiary: as indicated in several of the short stories, Holmes retires to Sussex to keep bees. Partly this is to do with the royal jelly they produce, which he believes helps to keep him active and well; but as the inter-woven story ‘The Glass Armonicist’ unfolds, it emerges that there is also a sentimental reason, a bee which alighted on the glove of the woman in that case, a woman who fascinated him for no very discernible reason. But perhaps the reasons for these things are never overtly demonstrable, and Mr Holmes tussles with Holmes’ strict logic, and the people who circumvent this. It doesn’t make him lovable, exactly, and the strict logic is always there, but he does have feelings of comradeship for Watson, Mycroft (both now dead), and Roger Munro, the teenage son of his housekeeper, who tends his bees when he is away. This thin thread of human connection and affection is as necessary to him as his work, which takes in the apiary and the composition of specialist texts, such as The Whole Art of Detection*. The sub-plot involving a trip to Japan to find that other rejuvenating substance, prickly ash, works as an illustration of what happens when Holmes tries to engage with the world. He has kept up a correspondence with Mr Umezaki on the subject of prickly ash, the culmination of which is his visit, but it turns out that Umezaki has an ulterior motive, and has merely had the sense to dress up his plea for help in the guise of scientific interest. When Holmes tries to reach out, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t have the knack, so has to wait through a lifetime of rigour for those three or four moments when connections to other people occur, unprompted, uncontrived, unforced. That they all die is as brutal an authorial policy as anything in Moriarty, but the Holmes that remains is sustained by his interests, and receptive to the possibility of genuine connections, however rare they may be. He comforts Roger’s mother with this moving speech:
It seems – or rather – it’s that sometimes – sometimes things occur beyond our own understanding, my dear, and the unjust reality is that these events – being so illogical to us, devoid of whatever reason we might attach to them – are exactly what they are and, regrettably, nothing else – and I believe – I truly believe that that is the hardest notion for any of us to live with. (p. 240)
There is no higher reason for Roger’s death, caused by wasp stings as he defended Holmes’ apiary – except, of course, to allow Holmes to work out what happened, and Cullin to make that point. Here they are earlier on, in happier times, surrounded by phenomena which can, reassuringly, be defined:
        ‘Is this cliff only chalk?’
        ‘It is made of chalk, and it is made of sandstone.’
        Within the strata beneath the chalk was gault clay, greensand, and Wealden sands in successive order, explained Holmes as they continued downward; the clay beds and the thin layer of sandstones were covered with chalk, clay, and flint added throughout the aeons by countless storms. (pp. 112-3)

* The Whole Art of Detection seems to be an actual thing.

A glass armonica in action.

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