Monday, January 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on Character: Colonel Sebastian Moran

Moran, Sebastian, Colonel. Unemployed. Formerly 1st Bangalore Pioneers. Born London, 1840. Son of Sir Augustus Moran, C. B., once British Minister to Persia. Educated Eton and Oxford. Served in Jowaki Campaign, Afghan Campaign, Charasiab (despatches), Sherpur, and Cabul. Author of Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas (1881); Three Months in the Jungle (1884). Address: Conduit Street. Clubs: The Anglo-Indian, the Tankerville, the Bagatelle Card Club… The second most dangerous man in London. ("The Adventure of the Empty House")

In the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Professor James Moriarty signs copies of The Dynamics of an Asteroid in Paris. His signature is an elegant scrawl from a fountain pen as he speaks in effortless French to those who have come to praise him. A man in an inconspicuous tweed suit slides into the empty seat next the Professor, a pair of opera tickets in his hands. There is a long pause as he waits for Moriarty to address him. Finally, the Professor turns, only slightly, to look at the man at his side: “My ticket?” The man nods, gesturing with the object in question.  “Unfortunately,” the Professor says, “you won’t be needing yours.” The man’s expression is largely unreadable as he looks back down at the tickets in his hands, but his sardonic tone is telling: “It’s a shame, Professor. I was looking forward to Don Giovanni.” The identity of the man in the unprepossessing suit isn’t officially revealed as Colonel Sebastian Moran until a bit later in the film, but there are enough clues in even that brief scene for the viewer to make the logical deduction on his or her own. For is that not how we always picture Colonel Moran – the slightly uncouth man on Moriarty’s right hand?

Paul Anderson as Colonel Sebastian Moran and
Jared Harris as Professor James Moriarty 
Colonel Sebastian Moran was first introduced to readers in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” but like many of the minor characters in the Canon, he has taken on a life of his own, appearing in numerous pastiches and television and film adaptations. In A Game of Shadows, mentioned above, he was played by Paul Anderson, and in the Granada television adaptation of EMPT, Patrick Allen. In the 1946 Basil Rathbone film, Terror by Night, Alan Mowbray took on the role of the Colonel (inexplicably masquerading as Major Duncan Bleek). In a recent episode of the new television series, Elementary (simply entitled, “M.”), actor Vinnie Jones takes a turn as Moran – a slightly more bloodthirsty, more unhinged version. And while the Colonel has not yet appeared in the BBC series, “Sherlock” (although who can say who was on the other end of those sinister red laser sights at the end of “The Great Game”?), don’t tell that to the legions of fans who have already imagined Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s 21st century version of Professor Moriarty’s trusted assassin in full. Several pastiche writers have also imagined their own versions of Colonel Moran. Kim Newman’s Moran of The Hound of the D'Urbervilles is every bit as vulgar, crass, ruthless and merciless as so many have imagined (I fully recommend The Well-Read Sherlockian’s excellent review of the novel available here). In John Gardner’s novel, The Return of Moriarty, Moran’s appearance is pitifully, though logically and necessarily, brief – and raises a host of questions.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Patrick Allen as Colonel Moran
But what do readers really know about Colonel Sebastian Moran? The above description – found in EMPT and taken from Sherlock Holmes’s own “index of biographies” – is concise and informative enough, providing details of birth and ancestry, education and military career, even his current address and preferred recreational spots, but the apparent glut of explicit knowledge ends there. Prior to EMPT (chronologically speaking), Moran is mentioned alongside Professor Moriarty in their brief cameo in The Valley of Fear: “[Moriarty’s] chief of the staff is Colonel Sebastian Moran, as aloof and guarded and inaccessible to the law as himself.” So readers can add those three remarkable descriptors (aloof, guarded, inaccessible) to what they already know about the man. To put Moran on the same level as Moriarty in terms of demeanor and position is quite a lofty compliment indeed. But it is also contrary to the man that readers know from EMPT. The Colonel found there is a man of barely contained rage, snarling, savage and “wonderfully like a tiger himself.” As Watson recounts, “The fury upon [Moran’s] face was terrible to look at.” This is a man impulsive and hotheaded enough to murder a man because he could expose the Colonel’s unethical card practices, but patient and methodical enough to be really clever about how he did it. There is the “man of iron nerve,” that Sherlock Holmes describes, a man ruthless enough to relentlessly pursue a man-eating tiger, but possessing of the necessary quietness of disposition to be successful.

At the end of EMPT, the Great Detective seems more than confident that the Colonel will no longer be a concern, but Moran doesn’t disappear from the Canon entirely. In “The Illustrious Client,” which according to William Baring-Gould’s chronology takes place in 1902, Holmes comments: “If your man is more dangerous than the late Professor Moriarty, or than the living Colonel Sebastian Moran, then he is indeed worth meeting.” And in “His Last Bow,” which according to the same chronology takes place in 1914: “The old sweet song… How often have I heard it in days gone by! It was a favourite ditty of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it.” This means that Moran was most definitely alive as of 1902, and most probably alive as of 1914 (Holmes refers to the Colonel in the present tense, but a life of international espionage is a busy one, so it might be worth arguing that Holmes’s information could be outdated). Surviving an incarceration of twenty years or more certainly shows a certain resilience of character, or perhaps just a mulish intractability.

At the end of A Game of Shadows, Moran covertly executes Professor Moriarty’s undercover assassin (discreetly, with a blowgun) and then walks out of the Swiss chateau, into the shadows, and away from Professor Moriarty, who is currently engaged in a cerebral battle out on the balcony with Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson runs towards his friend, while the Colonel just simply walks away, his intended direction unknown. It is a curious divergence, but not entirely unexpected. As Holmes himself points out in EMPT:

"There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height, and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family... Whatever the cause, Colonel Moran began to go wrong."

The Great Detective refers to Colonel Moran as a shikari, which is a Persian word in two parts: the main “Shikar,” meaning “of hunting” and the suffix “i” denoting possession. And it would seem that Moran too was a character in two parts. He comprises a certain cold reservation that made him equal to sit beside Professor Moriarty, but also a contrary savagery that made him effective in his role. Like so many remarkable characters, it is the dichotomy that makes Moran interesting, makes him memorable. Sherlockians return to Colonel Sebastian Moran not simply because he sits beside Professor Moriarty, but because he stands on his own, and cuts his own path.


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