The book was born as a pure Victorian thriller. The simple tale of Simeon Lynch, an innocent child, destined to be tarnished by the age and circumstances that he was born in. An age of romance and brutality, of horse drawn carriages and gas lights, of pickpockets and cutthroats. It was also the era of the greatest fictional detective of all time and the most notorious crime family in British history.
Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty have always fascinated me. Not so much for what they did on the page, but for what Doyle either left to the imagination, or left off the page simply because he didn’t think it interesting enough to include. I think this applies as much to the era, as it does to the characters. Despite Draconian punishments and the death penalty being metred out for even petty offences, criminality was widespread in Victorian England. Yet, for most people it was the only alternative to starvation or an early death via workhouses and slums. This level of social exploitation became a breeding ground for Britain’s toughest and most brutal individuals. My main protagonist, Simeon Lynch was to be a product of this social cesspit, a creature destined to steal or starve, kill or be killed.
In creating the character of Simeon, I was acutely aware, not only of the fact that Moriarty was the all pervading force of evil at the time, but that if my character had credibility then their paths had to cross. It was then that I examined the Moriarty legend in a little more depth than I had ever done. James was supposed to be the great Napoleon of Crime, the criminal mastermind behind every evil deed; a sociopath who was Holmes’s intellectual equal, and perhaps even better. But what was his motivation? I felt Doyle had either sold us a little short on MO, or viewed it as a major distraction from the character of Holmes and the enigma he was fashioning of the great detective.
For me, a monster like Moriarty had to be compulsively driven by something. His motivation had to be more than just greed. It had to be power. It had to be pride. The pursuit of perfection in whatever he turned his brilliant mind to. I’ll be honest, as I contemplated these points, I felt the character of James just didn’t suit my purposes. Brilliant at mathematics and astronomy, a dabbling academic and writer, a celebrity flitting in and out of great society capers, visible to the world and known to his nemesis as an ‘evil genius’, James Moriarty was far too well drawn for my intentions. I craved a more secretive, more twisted, more controlling and obsessive character to cross Simeon Lynch’s path. Someone with a different manner and means of exploiting people. Someone with a more corruptive and corrosive nature.
Now came the opportunity to broaden the Holmes canvas rather than just dab a paint brush and vandalise the beautifully formed works of yesteryear. So I created characters tojoin the company of James Moriarty and Captain Moran. Most notably, James’s brother Brogan. A man with more psychological defects and even greater brilliance than his sibling. Someone happy to stand back in his brother’s shadows, because from there he could wield unseen and unmatchable power. Brogan is a man with grandiose vision. An entrepreneur. An exploiter. A man with a truly twisted psyche. He has been shaped by family events, personally stung by certain social, financial and political injustices of the time. In his mind, he has been rejected by the very society that should be celebrating him, and he is determined to make the powers that be, pay for their insolence. Revenge requires him to build a criminal business (a latter day mafia) that rivals the biggest financial institutions in the land, that has political tentacles across the New World as well as the old, that is invested in the modern companies that rule finance, shipping, medicine and industrialisation.
In addition to meeting Brogan Moriarty, House of Smoke acquaints us with his colourful coterie of criminal accomplices. Michael Brannigan, a seasoned killer, tasked with training new recruits and banishing the last shreds of humanity from their bones. Surrey Creed, a murderous slip of a girl, a social chameleon who at the drop of a hat could become errand boy, maid, high-class harlot or lady of the manor. Sirius Gunn, a handsome but deadly Lothario who has ambition and cunning to rise high in the House of Moriarty. And Brogan’s consigliere, a quiet, disabled lawyer called Alexander Rathbone, who hailed from Boston in Massachusetts and knew the New World was ripe for exploitation.
The opening of House of Smoke sees James Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes sat in court, witnessing the passing of the death sentence on Simeon Lynch. It’s a blow to both men. By this point, Lynch had become crucial to the survival of the Moriarty empire and for Holmes he was the key to dismantling it once and for all. Now, the hangman was destined to thwart them both. In fourteen days, Lynch would make the longest walk in Newgate Prison, the one to the gallows.
As those two weeks tick by, we see Lynch’s life in retrospect. Forced to reflect on his deeds and face up to his demons, he and we realise exactly what shaped him, what events and which people conspired to turn a weak and sickly orphan into the country’s deadliest assassin. It is during this introspection that Lynch discovers hitherto unknown facts about one of his many murders, a killing that changed his life in a way he had never realised. Now he is fired with an obsession to escape the prison and to claim one more life before he meets his maker. But it is not only the law of the land that wants Simeon Lynch dead. Others crave his passing. And they are not prepared to wait for the hangman to carry out the deadly deed.
The House of Smoke by Sam Christer
published 24th March by Sphere, price £7.99 in paperback original.
Read SHOTS’ review by Amy Myers HERE.