Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles By Kim Newman

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The Independent Culture

Tessa Jowell, when Culture Secretary, responded to an attempt to save Arthur Conan Doyle's house, Undershaw, by underplaying the importance of the novelist and his creation Sherlock Holmes to British culture. Her remarks seemed particularly philistine and wrong-headed given that Holmes is one of the most instantly recognisable characters in fiction.

Then there is his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, the ultimate criminal genius, whose line of descendants stretches to Hannibal Lecter and beyond. Moriarty's creator spent surprisingly little time on him, and he makes few appearances in the Holmes canon. The reason for his imperishable reputation may be due to the number of people who have taken up the character, both in films and on the printed page. The novelist John Gardner wrote a series of enjoyable Moriarty pastiches, but it has taken Kim Newman to do something really audacious with the master criminal.

Newman's conduit for a new approach is the sexually decadent, self-regarding journal of Moriarty's lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran – a figure who appears even fewer times in Conan Doyle. The notion of reinventing Moriarty and Moran as malign doppelgängers of Holmes and Watson may have been explored before, but not with the firecracker exuberance that Newman brings to it.

The masterstroke here is making the narrator a libidinous scoundrel à la George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman. This allows us to see the bloodless, asexual Moriarty through the eyes of his boastful, amoral lieutenant. He sees Moriarty as a solitary masturbator, which for Moran (always on the lookout for female conquests) is a contemptible activity.

Newman's other entertaining conceit is the series of spins on other writers, including H G Wells and (notably) Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex Moran dismisses as "one of the shit-holes of the world", where a corrupt, phoney scion of the D'Urberville family is pestered by a throat-ripping hound. Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is essentially a collection of lively linked tales rather than an organically conceived novel – but it should be remembered that Conan Doyle did his best work in his short stories.