I’ve been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was in junior high, when I used to watch the old Basil Rathbone movies on Sunday afternoons. One year around 8th or 9th grade, someone bought me a volume of the complete stories for my birthday, which I devoured over the course of the summer. (“The Adventure of the Second Stain” being a favorite. ) I can truthfully say they’ve had an influence on my life, since, thanks to the “malign” influence of Rathbone and Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle, I’ve been a pipe-smoker since high school. (Don’t worry. I’ve stayed away from the “seven-percent solution”)
Since then, I’ve occasionally read modern pastiches on the Holmes stories. Some were excellent, such as Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Percent Solution”, while others were just awful. The good ones not only captured the feel of late Victorian London, but understood Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s characters, how they would speak, and their relationship to each other. The bad ones were only “Holmes in name only” and often had the characters saying or doing things they just wouldn’t in “reality.” Some clearly had axes to grind or thought they were being edgy, making me wonder why the Doyle estate didn’t sue them for damages.
I’m happy to say, however, that “The Last Moriarty” by Charles Veley largely falls into the “good pastiche” category. In fact I’d say it’s very good and well-worth a fan’s time and money.
(Warning: mild spoilers may follow.)
The story opens with the discovery of a dead American floating in the Thames. First ruled a suicide, Holmes (naturally) concludes it was a murder. He then learns the victim was in the employ of the Rockefellers and was in London as an advance man checking into security for a meeting between the highest levels of the British government and the richest men in America: Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie. From there the plot involves multiple murders, terrorism, blackmail, Great Power intrigue, secrets from Holmes’ own past, not one, but two damsels in distress, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Famous characters from the time also make their appearance: not only the Americans, but Prime Minister Salisbury and the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. And, as the title avers, Professor Moriarty himself is somehow tied up in this.
Author Veley paces the story well. Like a serial publication from that era, the story is broken up into many short chapters. The pacing is swift, but never rushed. An average reader could easily finish this over a weekend or even a single long night.
Veley captures the London of Doyle’s tales nicely: you almost hear the horses’ hooves’ clack against the cobbles and feel the cold wind off the Thames. The characters largely sound like they should, too. My favorite dramatic interpretation of Holmes was the late Jeremy Brett’s, whose performances in a British series from the 1980s and 90s set a bar I don’t think anyone will ever clear, even Benedict Cumberbatch. When reading Veley’s “Holmes,” I can hear Brett saying the lines. That to me is a mark of his success.
He’s less successful with Watson’s narrative voice, which doesn’t sound quite right to me, and I think he gets it wrong when characters address each other by their first names. It’s fine for the Americans, being a less formal people than the British, but for our two leads to call each other “Sherlock” and “John” with regularity, instead of “Holmes” and “Watson,” is off: acquaintances would say “Mr. Holmes” or “Dr. Watson;” male friends would address each other with last names without the honorifics. First names would only be used under moments of stress or emotional significance. This is a minor quibble, though.
Where I think the author really missteps is in his two final twists. No spoilers, but they involve Holmes’ past and, I think, go one step too far in reinterpreting the character. The revelations go against two of Holmes’ major attributes: his misogyny and, more importantly, the role of Irene Adler as “The Woman.” Veley handles the consequences of this well, but it’s a step I would not have taken.
Some might criticize the villain for being a two-dimensional caricature, but I think it fits fine with what is, after all, a melodrama involving the theater.
Overall, I highly recommend Charles’ Veley’s “The Last Moriarty” to fans of period mysteries in general, and Sherlock Holmes fans in particular. It’s enjoyable, fun, and even a bit gripping – a definite three-pipe read.
Note on the Kindle edition: Too often reviews of Kindle books make no mention of the format or the quality of the translation to electronic media – and Amazon is far too tolerant of publishers selling error-laden Kindle books. I’m happy to report “The Last Moriarty” has no such problems: the formatting is clean and easy to read, and I could find no typos that I recall. Well done!
PS: Before anyone shoots me, I happen to think Benedict Cumberbatch does a superb job with his modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (and his “Watson” is excellent). I just believe Brett’s is still superior and truer to the character.