EXCLUSIVE: Kim Newman on The History of Sherlock Holmes' Nemesis Moriarty

We’ve previously chatted with author Kim Newman about his landmark Anno Dracula series, a riff on the classic movie monster; but Newman is now prepping his take on ANOTHER classic villain, this time Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ Moriraty, the arch-nemesis of uber-Detective Sherlock Holmes. The novel – Professor Moriarty: Hound of The D’Ubervilles – shows what happens when the dark shadow of Holmes teams up with the opposite of Watson, and they solve crimes for their own gain.

Now naturally, Moriarty has appeared in hundreds of Conan Doyle stories, right? Wrong. The arch-villain actually only appeared in a few shorts, but since, has taken on a legend of his own, appearing in everything from movies, to TV shows like the recent BBC Sherlock, to even comic books. Lucky for me, though, I don’t need to recount all of Moriarty’s history for you when we have a certified scholar in the subject like Newman available. So I’ll shut up now, and let Newman tell you all about the “Napoleon of Crime” in his own words, in this exclusive article by the author:

Kim Newman: When he got fed up of being known only as the man who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle resolved to kill the Great Detective. This, he thought, would free him for ‘finer things’ – the historical novels he felt would secure his lasting fame. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way.

But how to get rid of Holmes?

Naturally, the hero must die triumphantly, sacrificing himself to save the world … and, equally naturally, he must save the world from someone dreadful, an arch-nemesis as yet unthought-of in the series. Clearly, no ordinary crook or killer could be roped in to do the deed. And bringing back a previous enemy, embittered and vengeance-seeking, was tricky since Holmes’ earlier cases had mostly wound up with the wrongdoer safely incarcerated. Any especially evil foes, like the murdering Grimesby Roylott of ‘The Speckled Band’, had suffered ironic fates and were too dead to be a threat to Holmes.

So, enter Professor Moriarty, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’.

A classic rendering of Professor Moriarty

The duality of Holmes and Moriarty, mirror image geniuses on opposite sides of the law, is so entrenched in the popular imagination, that it’s a surprise to go back to the Doyle canon and see that it only exists for about thirty-five pages or so in one single story ‘The Final Problem’ (even if it’s rehashed later, with contradictions, in the novel The Valley of Fear, in which the Professor features on the periphery). The first important adaptation of the stories, William Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes, makes more of the relationship between Holmes and Moriarty than that between Holmes and Watson (a play doesn’t need a narrator) – and Gillette’s influence lasted a long time in Holmes spin-offs, even overshadowing Doyle’s later output. When the actor-playwright asked if he might marry off Holmes in the play, Doyle unwisely told Gillette ‘you may marry him or murder him or do what you like with him,’ opening up the floodgates to later revisionary hands.

Jared Harris will play Moriarty in the upcoming movie Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

If Holmes is an intellectual detective, considering crime in the abstract as a series of puzzles, then Moriarty is his criminal opposite, a bent mathematical genius known for ‘a treatise on the binomial theorem’ and a book called The Dynamics of an Asteroid. While maintaining a respectable career as a maths tutor, Moriarty runs the leading criminal enterprise of Europe, whose breadth is so vast that it’s a shame Doyle hadn’t thought of it earlier to salt mentions throughout the stories so there’d be a TV series-like arc with a payoff at the Reichenbach Falls. In the Jeremy Brett series, where Eric Porter makes an especially fiend-like Moriarty, it is stated that Moriarty was behind the affair of the Red-Headed League and other Holmes concordances, films and TV shows have discerned the Professor’s hand in many of the crimes Holmes investigates.

Indeed, the Moriarty mystery springs out of nowhere, and is so dazzlingly explained – by Holmes to Watson, and Watson to us, with the great confrontations of the antagonists relayed to us second-hand – that gaps are left which later writers have siezed on to claim that Moriarty was an innocent man persecuted by a cocaine fiend (Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution) or an alternate personality of Holmes himself (Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story). Holmes needs Moriarty for the challenge, and Doyle needs Moriarty as a hit-man.

It all ends, after a curious chase across Europe with Holmes and Moriarty both seeming to take holidays just as their struggle in London is climaxing in a series of police raids on Moriarty’s gang, and that tussle atop the falls, with the antagonists locked in a death-grip going over the cataract and the get-out clause that the bodies are never found …

There's even been a Disney cartoon version of Moriarty...sort of, with Professor Ratigan

… because, after ten years – during which he wrote one before-the-fall Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles – Doyle was persuaded by a large cheque to resurrect Holmes, with none of this nonsense about it being an old case of his late friend’s that Watson only just remembered to write up. It turned out that the deductions poor old Watson made about what happened in Switzerland were wrong, and that Holmes survived, though few have thought to wonder whether throwing an elderly mathematician over a waterfall really counts as a heroic triumph. Moriarty stayed dead, though he does get the odd mention in later stories – and Holmes would never have the kind of continuing nemesis that the Joker, SPECTRE or the Master are for Batman, James Bond and Dr Who.

It's Sherlock Holmes and Prof. Moriarty to the death, in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The lesson was learned, and every Holmesian hero – there have been a lot on TV recently, like Monk, House, The Mentalist and the Benedict Cumberbatch modern-day Sherlock – has a Moriarty figure to nip at them from behind the scenes, concoct schemes which are thwarted but elude capture or confrontation until an appropriate season finale finish. Fu Manchu is a Moriarty configured to fulfil caucasian paranoia about ‘the yellow peril’ and is repeatedly defeated by the Holmesian Nayland Smith, Nero Wolfe had a Moriarty-like nemesis named Arnold Zeck, Bulldog Drummond repeatedly tangled with someone called Carl Peterson, Superman has Lex Luthor and the silent German cinema’s Dr Mabuse was Moriarty in all but name and operated in a collapsing society which could not throw up a Holmes figure to beat him (so he went mad, defeated by his own brain).

Moriarty himself has a life without Holmes – I was well aware that John Gardner (Moriarty) and Michael Kurland (The Infernal Device) had done Moriarty novels (indeed, series) before I set out to write Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d’Urbervilles. He’s been on Star Trek, he’s plotted against Dracula (in my novel Anno Dracula), he’s been rethought as a rat voiced by Vincent Price (The Great Mouse Detective) and reincarnated as ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’ by T.S. Eliot (and thus appears in Cats). The reason for this may be that Doyle just gives us a sketch – he’s unforgettable, but we never really meet Professor Moriarty. A few strokes only suffice: a curious snakelike oscillation of the head, fragments of a biography, the odd detail that the Professor and his brother have the same first name (almost certainly a Doyle slip), an array of shady confederates. This means there’s as much to fill in as to play with – the problem of adapting Holmes is what to use and how to interpret it, but Moriarty is a blanker slate, and that was more tempting to me.

Moriarty faces off against Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Only Sherlockians remember Holmes’ other enemies – John Clay, Baron Gruner, Charles Augustus Milverton, Rodger Baskerville (the Hound is well-known, of course), Dr Rylott (or Roylott), Sebastian Moran (Moriarty’s lieutenant and would-be avenger) – but Moriarty has a pop culture immortality only one step down from Holmes and Watson.

He may not have come back from the waterfall, but his influence lingers.

Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Ubervilles is currently on sale in bookstores everywhere.

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