MORIARTY By John Gardner Quercus, 320pp, £14.99
FROM JOHN GARDNER, WHO wrote more James Bond novels than Ian Fleming, the least you can expect is an action-packed book. But in Moriarty, published a year after Gardner's death, he gives us something else: one of the most cruel crime bosses in fiction.
The publicity bills Moriarty as "the Gaslight Godfather" but really, he could have taught the Mafia bosses an awful lot. Conan Doyle's "Napoleon of crime" commits the grisliest acts – the murder of a prostitute at a satanic mass, for example – without feeling the tiniest bit of remorse. To Moriarty, murder merely represents a means to an end, and is a part of the natural order of the world. Following this philosophy, he will stop at nothing to get what he considers to be rightfully his, even if it involves fratricide. In this Victorian jungle only the fittest can survive.
For all that, in this book – held back for more than 30 years after a dispute with Gardner's publishers – Moriarty finds that his followers have switched their allegiances during his long absences in America. Instead, London's criminal underworld has fallen completely under the spell of one Sir Jack Idell, better known as Idle Jack.
Moriarty is faced with a number of dilemmas. How can he convince his followers to remain faithful to their allegiance to "the family" but at the same time punish some of them for selling themselves to the enemy? And, most importantly, how can he find out which one of his four personal guards is betraying him, providing Idle Jack with precious intelligence?
In this vivid depiction of 19th-century London's underworld, we are presented with the worst of human nature and behaviour. Murder and corruption are commonplace and loyalty to one's crime lord is the only recognised virtue. As Moriarty takes us through his plans to reconquer his criminal empire and do away with Idell, the body count is like that of a London version of Gangs of New York.
Given Gardner's experience as a thriller writer, it is no surprise that the action scenes fairly gallop along. That said, there are a few longueurs in the set-up scenes. Gardner is forever clearing up obscure points, amplifying, repeating, elucidating, and leaving the reader with annoyingly little to interpret.