A rumination on Sherlock Holmes and the Myth of Moriarty

“He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans.” – Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Problem

One of the most interesting things about the Sherlock Holmes canon is that Watson never actually met Moriarty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Moriarty as a way to kill off his famous character, because he was sick of writing about Sherlock. Watson is our narrator, and he never met Moriarty or saw Sherlock fall to his ‘death’. Thus Moriarty has become a more prominent character in adaptations of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories than he ever was in the books. I’m a big fan of Doyle’s work, and as much as I loved the first two seasons of Sherlock, they’ll never be quite as good as the original work. In addition to making a Sherlock holiday special, the BBC also broadcast a half-hour retrospective of the television show, which was hosted by Mark Gatiss. The documentary, titled A Study in Sherlock was much more fascinating to me as a fan of the stories as it gets behind the logic of the adaptation. “The Abominable Bride” was fine, but it wasn’t the best work the show has done, and I’m far more fascinated in why Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss made the choices they did in adapting the show.

Professor Moriarty has become larger in the minds of Sherlock Holmes fans than he ever was in the canon. As a character, Sherlock Holmes is almost unequal in his intelligence, and it should make sense that there are those whose intellect matches his own. The only ones we see in Doyle’s stories are Irene Adler (she beat him in the books by the way, I will never forgive the show for changing that), Mycroft Holmes, and of course James Moriarty. The only mentions of Moriarty in any of Doyle’s stories are of course in The Final Problem, and then in The Adventure of the Empty House, as Sherlock recounts his survival at Reichenbach to Watson. The appeal of Moriarty is obvious – here is a man who Sherlock Holmes considers his equal, and appeared to have bested him. But for a character who was the focus of two of Doyle’s short stories, he has become mythical in adaptation.

In A Study in Sherlock, Mark Gatiss describes Moriarty as fiction’s first supervillain. But he only became that in the minds of the public. In Doyle’s work, defeating Moriarty is only the end goal in The Final Problem, in which Doyle had always planned to kill his protagonist. He’s not Voldemort or President Snow, who loom as threats throughout an entire series of novels, he works behind the scenes, and only becomes a threat once Sherlock figures out who he is. In Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock, Moriarty is the mastermind of “A Study in Pink”, “The Blind Banker” and “A Scandal in Belgravia”. Let’s ignore “The Blind Banker,” because that episode was not great, and look at “A Study in Pink” and “A Scandal in Belgravia,” which are based on two of Doyle’s more famous works. A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes novel, a tale of revenge. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes is tasked with acquiring a compromising photo of a nobleman who is soon to be married, and he’s beaten by Irene Adler, one of the only people to have ever beaten him. The writers of Sherlock undercut Irene Adler’s intelligence by having her work for Moriarty and then losing to Sherlock, all of which is to serve the greater narrative of two great minds at war.

One of the advantages of adaptation is that a visual story is able to broaden the scope of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which are told from Watson’s perspective. Watson never actually meets Moriarty, and describes to the reader his second hand accounts of Sherlock’s two encounters with Moriarty: when he visits 221B Baker Street, and at the Reichenbach Falls. This changed with Anthony Horowitz’ novel The House of Silk, written with the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Estate. It’s a new Sherlock Holmes story, set sometime between The Sign of the Four and The Final Problem. The second act of the novel sees Sherlock arrested for murder, and Moriarty kidnaps Watson to break Sherlock out of prison. It’s all very convoluted. Here is how Moriarty describes himself to Watson:

“I am a mathematician, Dr Watson… I am also what you would doubtless term a criminal, although I would like to think that I have made a science out of crime. I try not to dirty my own hands.”

The House of Silk, page 195

Moriarty never introduces himself by name to Watson, but in retrospect, he is convinced that this man was Moriarty.

Holmes talked aobut him in detail shortly before we left for the Reichenbach Falls, and even then I was fairly sure it was the same man. I have often reflected on this unusual aspect of Moriarty’s character. Holmes spoke with horror of his malevolence and the vast number of crimes in which he had been involved. But he also admired his intelligence and, indeed, his sense of fair play.

The House of Silk, page 291

I have many problems with The House of Silk, the foremost of which is the inclusion of Moriarty. I don’t personally consider The House of Silk to be part of the Sherlock Holmes canon, but even if I did, the only reason to include Moriarty was to have him meet Watson (and get Sherlock out of prison, but there could have been other ways to do that). There’s nothing added to the character, and what Moriarty says about himself isn’t any different to how Sherlock describes him in The Final Problem. Those two descriptions aren’t significantly different, so even if we include The House of Silk in the canon, it doesn’t provide the reader with additional insight to Moriarty’s character, who is a larger presence in adaptations than he ever was in the novels.

Coming back to Sherlock, the myth of Moriarty has taken on new heights. Even after Moriarty died in “The Reichenbach Fall,” he returns at the end of “His Last Vow”. “The Abominable Bride” is a trip into Sherlock’s mind palace, as he tries to figure out how Moriarty could still be alive. In a nice callback to the books, he does this by overdosing on a cocktail of drugs that made Watson look faint when he saw the list. It turns out that Moriarty can’t still be alive, it’s just that he’s always going to haunt Sherlock. It was a bit too tidy, but we also have no indication in Doyle’s stories that Moriarty ever really haunted Sherlock after he came back from the dead. For a character who largely served as a plot device, Moriarty has become larger than life in every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Of course we don’t know how heavily he sits on Sherlock’s psyche (he was an addict though), because the novels are told from Watson’s perspective. It’s fascinating how Moriarty has become a supervillain in the public imagination – he was never intended as a supervillain, but somehow that’s what he became.

Other thoughts:

  • For an actual review of “The Abominable Bride”, I recommend Allison Shoemaker’s over at The A.V. Club, which articulates the problems I had with it much better than I could myself.
  • While I have issues with the idea of Moriarty as a supervillain, I do agree with Allison’s sentiments about Andrew Scott, who is just so much fun to watch as Moriarty that I can understand why Moffat and Gatiss wanted to bring him back.
  • I really want to write more of these kinds of pieces this year, so they’re definitely a work in progress.
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