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It’s a Mystery: “I Confess That I Covet Your Skull”

By (January 1, 2009) No Comment
By John Gardner
Harcourt/Otto Penzler, 2008
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong:
Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles

By Pierre Bayard
Bloomsbury, 2008

In the summer of 1969, John Gardner was approached by the grandson of Albert William Spear with a set of Professor Moriarty’s private journals, written in cipher. Because his grandfather was a member of Moriarty’s inner circle the journals, if proved genuine, were invaluable. Since Gardner’s knowledge of ciphers was small, he took the journals to experts in the field. As he says: “After many long hours of arduous trial and error, coupled with applied science, the cipher was broken.” (Or, as Holmes himself says in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” “What one man can invent another can discover”.)

A further revelation was the content:

Quite early in this operation we realized that the documents could not be published as they stood. Even in these permissive times there is little doubt that Moriarty’s inherent evil—which lurks on every page—could cause concern. Also, the memories of too many revered and famous personalities would be subjected to wanton rumor and scandal. We decided, therefore, that it would be best to publish Moriarty’s story in the form of a novel, or novels.

Moriarty is the long-awaited conclusion of the late Gardner’s (he died in 2007) titular trilogy. The first two novels, The Return of Moriarty (1974) and The Revenge of Moriarty (1975), received mixed reviews. Neither book, happily, is inherent to the enjoyment of this third novel. Moriarty is not only able to stand alone, but is a gem in its own right.

It is important to note that the journals continued for many years after the spring of 1891—the year in which, according to Watson, Holmes disappeared at the Reichenbach Falls, only to reappear in 1894 with the story that it was Moriarty who had perished. Since Gardner is convinced that the journals are not a literary hoax, we now know that both Moriarty and Holmes survived. And that in May 1897, pursued by Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Angus McCready Crow, Professor Moriarty was forced to flee London.When Moriarty begins it is January 1900 and the Professor has returned, quietly and without fuss; and we hear little of either Holmes or Crow. Indeed, according to Moriarty, in his last encounter with Holmes he was accompanied by Albert Spear, armed and dangerous. This enabled him to hold the detective at a distance in a kind of Mexican standoff while he dictated his terms:

The death of Holmes and Moriarty;
drawing by Sidney Paget

He points out that if there is any act of aggression Spear will shoot Holmes “like a dog.” He then demands that they go their separate ways and pursue their own destinies. He proposes a truce, after which, I will endeavor not to cross your path again, on the understanding that you will not cross mine.

This explains Moriarty’s absolute conviction at the start of the novel:

Holmes bothers me little these days. We had our moment of conflict and I think came to a mutual understanding. I doubt if I shall ever hear again from Mr. Holmes.

Although he was on the brink of establishing illegal syndicates in every major U.S. city, Moriarty has come back because his vast criminal society in London is threatened by Sir Jack Idell—or Idle Jack—a hoodlum who may be acting on behalf of the most corrupt members of society in France, Italy, Spain and Germany, but whose alleged skills and intelligence are no match for the Moriarty Holmes describes in “The Final Problem”:

He is the Napoleon of crime. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.

How is it possible that this inferior Idell is such a threat? Elementary! There is a traitor in Moriarty’s midst. One of his closest lieutenants, one of the four members of his so-called Praetorian Guard is a turncoat. But which one?

There’s Ember, a small, foxy, unpleasant little man, who acted as a contact, running between Moriarty and the lurkers, dodgers, whizzers, dollymops, gonifs, and those who specialized: the petermen, confidence sharks, fences, and assassins, in other words every conceivable form of London lowlife.

There’s the evil Lee Chow, who dealt with the Eastern foreigners, running opium dens and dispensing cruel justice. He was feared by all because he would do Moriarty’s bidding no matter what, and never turn a hair of his pigtail. It was known that one of his best tricks was to cut the cheeks of his victims leaving them appallingly disfigured and unable to use their mouths normally.

There are the two main members of the Guard, the Professor’s true lieutenants, the distinctive Albert Spear with his broken nose and the telltale forked-lightning scar down his right cheek, and the big tough known only as Terremant. This pair was leading street gangers, mobsters, men who made decisions and had the final say-so, most feared in the highways, byways, and alleys of London. Most trusted by Moriarty.

And there is one more that Moriarty relies upon: Daniel Carbonardo, a world class killer whose favorite interest next to murder was obtaining intelligence through torture.

Pitting them all against one another like a master puppeteer, Moriarty finds his mole. He triumphs over the forces of law and order, and in the process finds he has a long lost daughter, Polly: “He took her in his arms and looked into her eyes and saw himself there, deep and devious, cunning as a cat, lovely as the first rose of summer, deadly as a lethal weapon.” The master, it would seem, has met his match!

John Gardner is the highly imaginative author of forty-three books, including the acclaimed Boysie Oakes series and fourteen James Bond novels. Herein, he is deliciously, wickedly engaging.

Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst-cum-professor of French literature, has subtitled his book Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Reopening classic cases is nothing new for Professor Bayard. His Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? appeared here in 2000. This, of course, was his “attack” on the Agatha Christie classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, questioning her detective Hercule Poirot’s conclusion. Dame Agatha was not around to challenge him. But I am and I do not subscribe to his theory. And since we’re getting down to cases, Bayard’s, I do not think much of the one he makes against The Hound of the Baskervilles either.

In the beginning of Conan Doyle’s Hound, young Dr. Mortimer brings to Sherlock Holmes the statement from 1742 of a certain legend that runs in the Baskerville family. Bayard opens by recreating the scenario upon which this legend is based. We have the evil Hugo Baskerville and the young woman he kidnaps, her escape, the pursuit on the moors and their deaths—his from the fangs of a monstrous hound, hers by fright as she witnesses the scene. But what is most important to Bayard is the girl’s dying thoughts:

Her last thoughts carry an encoded message, a message without which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous work remains incomprehensible. It is to reconstruct these thoughts and their secret effects on the plot that this book has been undertaken—for this, and for the dead girl’s memory.

Well! What we have here is the unrevealed contents of an encoded message made up out of whole cloth to support the thesis that Sherlock Holmes’ solution to the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles is wrong. Gardner’s book is also whole cloth—but fiction. Whereas Bayard is deadly (no pun intended) serious.

Furthermore, to debunk Holmes we must subscribe to Bayard’s method of investigation which he names detective criticism. The simplistic aim of this method is “to be more rigorous than the detectives in literature and the writers who create them, and thus to work out solutions that are more satisfying to the soul.” To this end he questions whether Oedipus really killed his father. I can think of any number of naysayers to this one, Sophocles and Freud high up on the list. Bayard then takes on Hamlet: Claudius is innocent of his brother’s murder. Shakespeare might not have agreed. The details Bayard uses to prove his new conclusions are ambiguous at best and the rationale as simplistic as his method: “Above all, the world that the literary text produces is an incomplete world, even if some works offer more complete worlds than others.”

Drawing by Sidney Paget

Back to Holmes: Bayard goes at all the stories to give us many examples of Holmes’s mistakes. But Holmes, like the best of his compatriots, frequently owns up to having erred before presenting the real solution. More often than not, this is an essential component of the best detective stories. As Holmes himself confessed in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you.”With ferocious contempt, Bayard pokes holes in every facet of Hound. The problem is that it’s all circumstantial. He tells us, therefore it’s true. Of course Holmes would have had a retort to such dubious methodology and did in “The Bascombe Valley Mystery”: “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing; it may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

As to Bayard’s solution, it’s Beryl Stapleton, the wife of the man Holmes names as the murderer. In a lengthy, convoluted theory, Bayard has her fake the murder of Sir Charles, kill her husband, and plan to marry Sir Henry only to murder him! Bayard calls her “…the true Hound of the Baskervilles…”

He adds insult to injury by suggesting that, therefore, the monster in the story is not where Conan Doyle, led astray by his hatred for the detective, persists in imagining it. Oh, yes, the entire story was fabricated out of Doyle’s hatred for his detective. And Doyle didn’t know what he was talking about! Moreover, Beryl was manipulated by the spirit of the girl Hugo led to her death, the girl with the encoded message. Surprise! He never tells us what the encoded message was. That would be the message without which Doyle’s work becomes incomprehensible. His solution certainly isn’t more satisfying to the soul.

Before writing this, I reread The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here is what Jacques Barzun says of the story in his wonderful, encyclopedic A Catalogue of Crime:

The only perfect story among the four long ones, and one of the best in the canon, irrespective of length. By a miracle of judgment, the supernatural is handled with great effect and no letdown. The plot and subplots are thoroughly integrated and the false clues put in and removed with a master hand. The criminal is superb, Dr. Mortimer memorable, and the secondary figures each contribute to the total effect of brilliancy and grandeur combined. One wishes one could be reading it for the first time.

I rest my case.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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