By Jeannette Ng.
Moriarty the Patriot by Ryosuke Takeuchi and Hikaru Miyoshi is a manga that presents Professor James Moriarty (nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, here “William James Moriarty”) as a ruthless anti-hero battling class inequality, evil aristocrats and the British Empire itself. He does so through the medium of intricately plotted perfect crimes, all the while grinning enigmatically at the reader through his very floppy fringe.
Grandiose speeches and dramatic revelations abound. The power-drunk upper classes strut and simper in their power, only be brought down with some cathartic, murder-centric justice. Cornered, each villain launches into one of those “quiet part out loud” tirades, faintly reminiscent of a Boris Johnson editorial. Whilst it is certainly possible to read this scathing critique of the elite as solely confined to the past and to Britain, Moriarty the Patriot remains a series unapologetic in its politics.
The first chapter gives us the good professor as an orphaned boy, adopted with his younger brother by the Moriarty family. Alongside the older of their two new brothers, they commit to tearing down the inequalities of their world. An ambitious plot is hatched and a new anti-hero is born in blood and fire.
The stories are largely structured around an injustice that has occurred, with the Moriarty brothers being hired by the victim. An investigation follows as thematic and narrative threads entangle, all culminating in the titular Moriarty’s plan being executed in clockwork precision. Despite obvious differences, I am reminded of early Death Note (especially given we have a scruffy, eccentric nemesis and what promises to be plenty of cat-and-mouse mind games), with a dash of the family dynamic and criminal competence of Peaky Blinders. More than once I am reminded of Tommy Shelby straightforwardly narrating his elaborate plans to his older martially inclined brother and the younger, baby-faced brother.
Though Holmes himself doesn’t appear until the chapter five in the second volume, parallels come quick and fast. Moriarty terms himself a “criminal consultant”, the mirror opposite to Holmes being a “consulting detective.” They are both, on some level, imposters among the elite, with Moriarty having assumed the identity of the “real” James Moriarty and Holmes having a Cockney mother (and consequently a Cockney accent). Both delight in puzzles, turning their first meeting into a neat little duel of deduction.
There are plenty of references to the original Conan Doyle stories, including the Criterion Bar. There are also delightful little fourth-wall-breaking skits between chapters where the cast comment on the original Doyle stories, subsequent adaptations as well as pointing out how deeply unhandsome the iconic illustration of Professor Moriarty is. The last chapter of volume two is titled “A Study in S”, a reference to the first published Holmes story – the implication is that later chapters will further weave Moriarty’s adventures into the margins of the Holmes canon.
I have a massive soft spot for manga set in Great Britain drawn and written by Japanese artists, which I consider a subgenre in and of itself. It spans meticulously researched details, sharp insight and fresh takes on old tropes to amusingly discordant additions. Kaoru Mori’s delightful Emma and Kore Yamazaki’s The Ancient Magus’ Bride come to mind as examples. It isn’t that everything is perfectly accurate, to the extent that I can see the seams of their research, it’s that through the eyes of these artists, I see a rendering of Britain that is both flattering but also deeply damning. Their romanticism goes hand in hand with the use of Britain as a canvas to explore rigid class systems, gender roles and brutal imperialism. I often wonder if these depictions resonate because on some level, Japan is also a decaying empire with a vestigial monarch, a right-wing government and far too much nostalgia for the allegedly glorious past. Either way, I find many works of the works this subgenre deeply compelling.
What is of particular amusement to me is how many of the early chapters are set in Durham (where I live). Though the manga doesn’t appear to have kept Moriarty being Irish Catholic (though later volumes may alter this), it has preserved him being a professor of mathematics at Durham university. As such the manga depicts many sights that are as familiar to me as the back of my hand, but also more than a few deeply unfamiliar ones.
The Romanesque pile that is our Cathedral can be seen in many panels, as well as the Castle, which was and still is part of the university. There are also perfect recreations of Durham maps (though admittedly very modern ones). This all sits alongside bridges that don’t exist and pubs straight out of manga fantasy medieval land. The odd plot point about farmer specialising in grapefruits based in Durham also strains credulity, given how bitterly cold the North East of England is. I should probably also add that Durham only has a claim to being the third oldest university in England rather than Great Britain. The latter region includes Scotland and Wales, both of which have older universities.
It is worth noting, though, that for all the talk of equality and tearing down the British Empire, the action is currently still confined to England and the victims are mostly beautiful young women. Colonialism is mentioned as part and parcel of that injustice that Moriarty fights against, but is not directly tackled. As is arguably expected of the genre, the recurring cast is almost entirely long-limbed beautiful men in varying degrees of scruffiness.
Still, Moriarty the Patriot is genuinely delightful. The art is sumptuous and the setting vividly realised. I absolutely recommend the two currently available volumes.