Book Review: Who Thinks Evil
Minotaur Books, 2014
Who Thinks Evil is the fifth mystery starring legendary Sherlock Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty as a brilliant and misunderstood hero. The series is written by that delightful hack, Michael Kurland, who fills each story with enough allusions to the Holmes canon to please even the most die-hard fan, and who adds enough playful, intelligent tweaks to that canonical source material to bring a smile to the walrusy countenance of Arthur Conan Doyle himself. These books are first-rate examples of Holmes-milieu pastiche, and this latest one is the best of the bunch.
As the story opens, its acerbic hero is in Newgate prison awaiting retrial (his first jury was hung) on an array of charges from housebreaking to manslaughter. He’s innocent, but thanks to the relentless slandering of his name done by a certain amateur consulting detective in Baker Street, the general public believes he’s capable of anything, and the judge is determined that he’ll be convicted at his next trial.
Moriarty – formerly the holder of the Thales Chair of Mathematics at Midlothian University, author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid (and a tantalizingly Einsteinian treatise called A Few Hesitant Steps into the Fourth Dimension), MS, ScD, PhD, FRAS – is fairly stoical about all this, aided by a Hannibal Lecter-style ability to think himself away from the confines of his cell:
Stone walls did not, for the moment, a prison make; Moriarty had turned his mind in another direction. Scarcely aware of the roughness of his gray prison garb, the damp chill of his cell, or the shackles on his hands, he mentally roamed the vast space between the stars, considering what the spectra of certain nebulosities indicated about their composition and structure – a problem he had been wrestling with for some years.
It’s tedious, however, and so he’s naturally intrigued when he’s visited by the fifth Earl of Scully with a plea from the upper echelons of the British aristocracy for Moriarty’s assistance in a highly sensitive matter. A certain Baron Renfrew has disappeared from the care of his keepers during a night in the London stews, and since Renfrew is actually Prince Albert Victor, grandson to Queen Victoria herself, interested noblemen like the Earl of Scully and the sixteenth Duke of Shorham can’t go to Scotland Yard. Without (much) rancor, Moriarty asks them why they don’t go to Sherlock Holmes, since the case is exactly the sort of thing he likes – but it turns out Holmes is already at work on a case for the king of Sweden. It’s actually Holmes’ omniscient brother Mycroft who suggests Moriarty, who has some of the rather unsavory qualifications they fear he may need:
“We need, we must have something – someone – different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm. Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and the illicit, and who is trusted by men who trust no one.”
“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”
At first, the case seems straightforward: a cold, methodical maniac is visiting houses of ill repute (both the straight and gay variety) and slaughtering whores there in a manner very reminiscent of the crimes of Jack the Ripper a couple of years earlier. Writers as smart as Kurland tend to develop a correspondingly smart readership, so he can allow himself to count on the fact that a significant number of his readers will know that Prince Albert Victor himself was a suspect in the Ripper killings (he’s a suspect still, for those ‘Ripperologists’ who’ve abandoned even the last shreds of their common sense). But is it a feint, or a feint within a feint? Is “Prince Eddy” a homicidal maniac, or is he being framed as one – or has he been captured by one, since even his handlers have no idea where he is?
Enter the Professor, who immediately sets about tracing the missing royal and soon uncovers of a far more sinister plot than he at first imagined – one directed at himself.
Kurland has a self-evident blast working the ropes and pulleys on his various plots and sub-plots, and it will be a phlegmatic reader indeed who isn’t won over. The gore of the crimes and their impacts on the emotions of the well-drawn primary and secondary characters who discover them are vividly but never solemnly rendered; both the British government and Moriarty himself have some very serious things at stake as the murders pile up. But then a character will say “Harumph!” – and you’ll be reminded that Kurland’s primary hope is to entertain you, with smiles as well as chills.
And purists need not worry: it isn’t too long before Sherlock Holmes jumps into the story and begins locking horns with the professor directly in several perfectly-executed quip-fests:
“I’ve always admired your study, Professor,” Holmes said, taking off his greatcoat and looking around the room before lowering himself into a chair. “It looks so erudite that it artfully conceals … what we both know you to be.”
Moriarty sighed. “Ah, Holmes,” he said. “You don’t know how I’ve missed you and your puerile accusations.”
It’s been a long time – fifty years, God help us all – since John Gardner’s irresistibly good Professor Moriarty novels. Those five decades have seen a vast number of terrible Holmes pastiche novels and a small handful of good ones (Donald Thomas comes right to mind as an example of the latter). For five novels, Michael Kurland has been crafting some of the best Holmes-universe fiction out there – here’s hoping Number Five proves charmed and finally reaches the gigantic audience the whole series deserves.