Moriarty by John Gardner

Review by Chris Redmond

We have been waiting since, let's see, 1975 for this posthumous book by highly respected novelist John Gardner, who died in 2007, and the big question is whether it was worth the wait. Opinions might vary, but mine is, in a nutshell: not exactly.

The book is the third in a series that began with The Return of Moriarty in 1974 (confusingly, that volume was also titled just Moriarty for British readers) and continued with The Revenge of Moriarty in the following year. Those books hold an honoured place on almost any Sherlockian pastiche shelf for more reasons than one, but perhaps most of all because Gardner, unlike so many pasticheurs, writes clear grammatical English, his plots make sense and he is a master of description, dialogue, and pacing. Incidentally he was a pioneer of an important Sherlockian genre — telling the events of a canonical story, in this case “The Empty House,” from a viewpoint distinctly not Holmes's. He also contributed an apocryphal idea — Moriarty's involvement in the theft of the Mona Lisa — that was adopted by Granada Television's scriptwriter for the Jeremy Brett version of “The Final Problem” in 1985.

The first book of the trilogy dealt with Holmes's return to London and Moriarty's escape from him; the second, with Moriarty's return and the theft of the painting. Now the third book tells what happens next, as Moriarty struggles to regain command of his criminal empire. Its major weakness is that nothing in particular happens — well, many things happen, but largely in an episodic sort of way. There is no arc of development, and events that might have started just about anywhere finish nowhere in particular. The last page is not really the end of the story, just the end of the book, in the manner of so much franchise fiction. Unfortunately it does not seem likely that there will be a fourth volume in which characters might develop further and conflicts somehow resolve.

On the other hand, Moriarty indubitably has strengths. One is, as has already been mentioned, Gardner's masterful writing. Not for him are awkward punctuation, wobbly tenses, dangling modifiers, obtrusive and unlikely slang, unwitting Americanisms. John Gardner knows his trade and knows his "shall" from his "will." He knows, too, how to draw plausible characters, including some who are grotesques but not caricatures, how to write dialogue that doesn't sound like the product of an artificial intelligence program, and how to weave Victorian slang and colourful details of daily life into his sentences. Perhaps he overdoes it a little in offering both footnotes and a brief Glossary. (In the former, he nods at least twice, wrongly stating that a threepenny bit is three farthings, and misidentifying a classic hymn as "The Church Is One Foundation.")

In short, Moriarty is to be recommended, but not without reservation; to be read, but not more than once. After thirty-five years' wait, the whole thing is unfortunately a bit of a disappointment.