When I decided to write about Sherlock Holmes’s arch-enemy in my novel (or is it a collection of short stories?) Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d’Urbervilles, I naturally headed to the canon to do primary research. I made a list of everything Arthur Conan Doyle establishes about the Professor and his right-hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran (whom I make my anti-Watsonian narrator) and determined that I would stick to the letter of the text.
Others who’ve trod the ground before me opt to play the revelation game and have their Moriarty turn out to be very different from the character Doyle paints. Nicholas Meyer in The Seven-per-Cent Solution (1976) makes Moriarty a persecuted innocent (Holmes’ old maths tutor and his mother’s lover, the source of the childhood trauma that shapes the detective’s character) imagined as a criminal by a drug-addicted paranoid.
John Gardner in Return of Moriarty (1974) and sequels has the Professor be one of several disguises adopted by a younger crook who runs a Victorian crime gang Godfather-style. Michael Kurland in An Infernal Device (1978) and sequels makes Moriarty a hero whose criminal enterprises finance his scientific and patriotic work (he is also, incidentally, Holmes’s estranged father).
Robert Lee Hall in Exit Sherlock Holmes (1977) has Moriarty and Holmes be time-travelling clones from the future. Hall draws on the fact that Doyle’s descriptions of Holmes and Moriarty could easily be the same man, which has prompted quite a few – for instance, Michael Dibdin in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978) and Jeremy Paul in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes (1988) – to propose that the apparent antagonists are aspects of a single split personality.
The team who put together The Moriarty Papers: The Schemes and Adventures of the Great Nemesis of Sherlock Holmes (2011) – which doesn’t overlap with my book as much as I thought it might from the description on Amazon, and is a charming little conceit in itself – have a quite different reading, though subtly alluding to at least one of the wild theories proposed above.
The Professor was created solely to kill off Holmes, whom Doyle famously felt was ‘keeping him from better things’
All this speculation is possible because Doyle gives us surprisingly little to go on. Professor Moriarty was introduced and disposed of – over a Swiss waterfall, with Holmes – in a single story, ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ (1893). The Professor was created solely to kill off Holmes, whom Doyle famously felt was ‘keeping him from better things’. Holmes came back from the Reichenbach, Moriarty didn’t – though he has an offstage appearance in the later novel The Valley of Fear (1915).
A close reading of ‘The Final Problem’ shows that, strictly, Moriarty is offstage in this too. Watson, the narrator, learns of the villain when Holmes lectures about him, but (crucially for later conspiracy theorists) never actually meets the man. The famous face-off in Baker Street between the Great Detective and the Napoleon of Crime – where they politely threaten each other and make remarks about the sizes of heads – is entirely recounted by Holmes to Watson. Even the crucial battle at the top of that waterfall, the subject of one of Sidney Paget’s greatest Holmes illustrations, is inferred by Watson rather than directly witnessed.
Ten years on, this get-out clause – along with the bit about the foaming waters being so deep and treacherous that no bodies were ever found - allowed Doyle to revise continuity in ‘The Empty House’ (1903) and have Holmes (but not Moriarty) survive for further adventures. That Doyle left such loopholes even when murdering his famous creation shows that he – at least subconsciously – was loath to set Holmes aside permanently (as it happens, the best-known of the Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was published in 1902 while the detective was officially dead and framed as a posthumous remembrance of an earlier case).
Moriarty, however, was easier to get rid of – ‘The Empty House’ bigs up Sebastian Moran, another villain who is given a biography but only a brief direct appearance, the Professor’s vengeful second-in-command, and Doyle occasionally has Holmes say a particular baddie is almost as bad as Moriarty. The appearance in The Valley of Fear is odd, since not only is Moriarty offstage, he’s not the primary villain – just a means of getting the antagonists together to try to kill each other.
Looking over the canon again, it struck me that there might even be a little humorous schoolboy payback in the notion that the most evil man in the world is a maths teacher
Doyle thought so little of Moriarty that he isn’t even sure about his first name – in ‘The Final Problem’, the dead professor’s reputation is defended by his brother Colonel James Moriarty, but The Valley of Fear reveals that he’s Professor James Moriarty (a third brother is a station-master in the West of England but goes unnamed – prompting several authors, including me, to assume that he’s another James). In a similar slip, Dr John Watson’s wife calls him James once – suggesting Doyle had a hang-up about the name, just as he had a kneejerk tendency to assume anyone by the rank of Colonel was a rotter.
Looking over the canon again, it struck me that there might even be a little humorous schoolboy payback in the notion that the most evil man in the world is a maths teacher – it’s not, as is usually taken to be the case, that the diabolical mastermind had a cover identity as a meek teacher, but that a maths master is showing his true colours by openly embracing perfidy.
For the rest, in the cases of both Moriarty and Moran, Doyle scatters gemlike details – publications (Moriarty’s The Dynamics of an Asteroid, Moran’s Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas), possessions (a small painting by Greuze), tics (Moriarty’s snake-like head oscillation), salary details (Moran nets £6000 p.a., while Moriarty’s teaching post brings in £800) – that suggest untold exploits, and leaves it at that. In going over Doyle’s stories, I found more and more golden throwaways – which explains why there’s a whole industry of writers filling in the blanks, elaborating on cases Watson mentions in passing or deconstructing the whole set-up to put a different interpretation on the characters. I was drawn in particular to Moriarty and Moran because they are so vivid, and yet so vague – but my readings of the characters are rooted in the original text. If my Moriarty is an intellectual sociopath and my Moran an instinctive danger junkie, then those are interpretations put on the ‘facts’ Doyle sets out.
Other readings, of course, are possible. And encouraged.
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