Friday, October 24, 2014

Moriarty: The Man We Never Knew

John Connolly’s novella, The Caxton Book Depositary and Lending Library (collected in Death Sentences, edited by Otto Penzler) posits an intriguing idea: that somewhere out there, some literary creations shave become so embedded in public consciousness that they have quite literally come to life. As we are guided through the Library where these creations come to live, we meet Sherlock Holmes, sitting in his room, smoking a pipe and pondering on whatever mysteries he can. But one imagines that elsewhere in that building, there would be a place for his greatest adversary, Professor James Moriarty

Such is the association of Moriarty with the great Consulting Detective that one might easily believe the pair spent decades locked in combat. The rebooted BBC TV series, Sherlock, is obsessed with the character, going so far as to apparently resurrect him a mere three episodes after his alleged death.  But Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss are not alone in obsessing over the “Napoleon of Crime.” The professor’s own story will be told in the new Anthony Horowitz-penned novel, Moriarty (due in October 2014).  He is Holmes’s greatest adversary, and yet he appeared only a few times in the Holmesian canon as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. And one could easily make the case, looking at the evidence, that Doyle was not as enamoured with the professor as others would come to be. Certainly not enough to give the man a consistent backstory or even place within the canon.

When the police went looking, Moriarty wasn’t there…

Forgive the poor homage to TS Elliot, but in many ways – both in the fictional world of Holmes’s London, and on the page of Doyle’s literary canon – MacAvity and Moriarty share this particular trait. The professor is rarely seen on the page. Indeed, Watson – the narrator of all but one Holmes story – only glimpses him in the distance during the Reichenbach Falls incident, where both Holmes and Moriarty plunged to their apparent deaths. Moriarty is a manipulator. He is a source of criminal activity but rarely directly linked to specific crimes. He is a spider at the centre of a vast web, a manifestation of our fears about organised crime. He is a bogey-man. A ghost, if you will. And the very fact that we know so little about him is exactly why he is so appealing. The mystery surrounding Moriarty is tantalising. How can a man be so powerful when we know so little about who he is and what drives him?

Rewriting History

Moriarty first appeared in The Final Problem. Holmes has realised that the wave of criminality he has recently encountered can all be traced back to one mastermind: Professor Moriarty. His influence revealed, Moriarty vows that Holmes will die if he continues to interfere. His appearance is sudden and unexpected. There is the sense that here is an enemy finally worthy of Holmes; someone who could prove to be his equal. Someone whom we had never seen before. That he dies at the end shows that Conan Doyle intended him to be a one off creation. By creating a man who was Holmes’s equal in every way, he was able to create something that could off the Great Detective in an appropriate and resolutely final matter. Moriarty was the mirror of Holmes, right down to the fact that he employed a right hand man to mirror the Watson/Holmes dynamic. The idea was that Moriarty and Holmes were so equally matched that there could be no winner when they met. Neither man could walk away. They were the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. They cancelled each other out. That was how Doyle thought he could ensure the end of Holmes.

His one and only appearance should have been the end. But then, it should have been the end of Holmes, too.

But as so often happens in popular fiction, the readers demanded more. Conan Doyle had already brought Holmes back from the dead. So he returned Moriarty to the page one more time. But not in the way that many might have expected.

The only novel-length Holmes tale to feature Moriarty was set earlier in the Holmes canon. The Valley of Fear – which is perhaps only nominally a Holmes story, taking place as much of it does in the US – finds Moriarty being acknowledged by Holmes as a genius before Holmes himself claimed to know of Moriarty’s existence. Even Watson knows the name Moriarty, despite admitting during the Falls incident that he had never heard of the man before. The Valley of Fear is also the book where Moriarty finally gains a first name.

Many things in The Valley of Fear contradict or sit uneasily with what had come before beyond Holmes and Watson’s apparent foresight regarding the man. For example, when Moriarty is encountered in The Final Problem, he is given no first name, but his brother is referred to as “James Moriarty”. It is certainly possible (but improbable) that both children were called James, but the likelihood of such an occurrence is very small indeed. And while Holmes may allow himself to entertain the improbable, most authors do their best to avoid it.

To modern eyes such contradictions can lead to a lot of headscratching and mental gymnastics as we try to put all the pieces together in a way that allows us to make sense of it all and build a solidly canonical picture of the villainous Professor. And yet, somehow, to so many people, he feels real.  There is clearly something special about the character; something essential that transcends biography and continuity. Moriarty is perhaps not so powerful as a character but as an archetype.

Mirror, Mirror

It is the essence of Moriarty rather than the details of his life that has earned him a place in the public’s imagination.  Moriarty is a twisted reflection of our hero; something he has in common with many of the greatest villains in crime fiction. He becomes a threat because we already know that there are very few people Holmes respects intellectually. In order to earn such a status, a person would have to be very special indeed.

He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it, he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London. He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city...

Holmes’s description of Moriarty in The Final Problem is expositional, and yet there runs through it a kind of admiration. One can imagine the excitement in Holmes’s voice as he reaches the end of his thought: He is the Napoleon of Crime. He is a great man. A worthy opponent. And that it has taken Holmes so long to realise this only adds to his admiration of Moriarty.

Like Holmes, Moriarty is described as having a “high, domed forehead”. In Conan Doyle’s day, this was considered a sign of great intellect and again adds to the point of similarity between Holmes and his opponent, marking them as equals intellectually.

Absence makes the heart…

The true appeal of Moriarty, like all great villains, lies in the rarity of his appearance. A villain easily defeated time and again, such as the Daleks in Doctor Who or the Joker in Batman, quickly loses their threat. Moriarty appeared only twice in the Holmesian canon (and both times, mostly off-page). His power lies in the fact that we know so little about him that it becomes almost impossible to predict what he will do. Those who overuse him in the rash of Holmes pastiches and reinventions that have become prevalent in modern publishing do so at their peril.

Horowitz’s new book will be interesting, especially if we see more of Moriarty on the page than we have done before. It is not a Holmes story, of course, but rather a speculation on the truth behind the fate of Moriarty. It includes characters from Holmes’s world, but not Holmes himself. It is not a Holmes novel, but looks set to expand on Conan Doyle’s universe. I do have to wonder, though, whether the book will be able to top Kim Newman’s riotously tongue-in-cheek novel, Moriarty: The Hound of the D’U’rbervilles. In that novel, we saw Moriarty through the eyes of his “Watson”, Colonel James “Basher” Moran, as we explored the flipside of Holmes’s fictional world. The book at once reinforced and punctured the myth of Moriarty. Can Horowitz achieve something similar? Can he make us look at someone whose own myth is greater than their actual achievements with a fresh set of eyes? Can he escape the clichés that have built themselves up around the character? Can he make Moriarty as credible as he was in the original canon? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to finding out. 

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