Friday, January 28, 2011

Some Thoughts on Character: Professor James Moriarty

"But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law—and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that's the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge with your year's pension as a ‘solatium’ for his wounded character.” (The Valley of Fear)
Last year, a dear friend of mine read through the entire canon for the first time.  He would send e-mails when he had questions, or had reached some point that he wanted to discuss, and I was really looking forward to what he would have say when he had finally finished all the tales.  He seemed to be enjoying them and I thought maybe he would want to move on to some pastiches, or watch some of the other Sherlock Holmes films, besides the 2009 one that had inspired him to read the stories.  I wondered many things.  And it never occurred to me how irritated he would be.
No, not irritated.  Angry.  He was angry.  My friend was in a full-blown, righteous snit.
“That’s it?!” His e-mail read.  “Moriarty is in two stories?! Two?!”   
Well, yes.  I thought (but did not write).  Of course, he’s only in two stories, but… My train of thought seemed to derail there, for a time, unsure of how to finish.
The thought I did not complete at the moment was: …but it certainly seems like more, doesn’t it?
Professor James Moriarty is only directly mentioned in two of the original stories: “The Final Problem,” and “The Valley of Fear,” and is mentioned reminiscently in five others: "The Empty House,”  The Norwood Builder," "The Missing Three-Quarter," "The Illustrious Client," and "His Last Bow."  But for all his sparse presence, Moriarty casts a very long, dark shadow.   
And like a shadow, his character is tenuous and ethereal.  He’s not in many canon stories, but he seems to work his way into all of them, like fog working its way down a darkened alley, obscuring everything of importance.  Everything about the man is up for question, because as Sherlock Holmes pointed out—nothing about the man is certain, and to try to make any definite statements about the man is potentially libelous.  Or, at the very least, potentially grossly inaccurate.
There are certain facts that we can obtain from the original stories.  Things that we supposedly know.  We know, for example, that he was a renowned professor of mathematics, and his writings supposedly revolutionized his field.  We also know that he has two brothers—one a colonel (also named James) and one who is “…a station master in the west of England (VALL).”   These facts are concrete, yes?   These things are certain.
Or maybe not.  John E. Gardner’s excellent “Moriarty” trilogy, for example, posits the theory that none of the above statements were true.  Not about Moriarty’s family, not about his profession, not about his interests, not even Moriarty’s true identity is without question and uncertainty.  And in “The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls,” by John R. King, the reader walks away wondering if anything he or she knows about Moriarty is true, and if the manwhom King portrays as a devoted husband and a doting fathermight not be (unbelievable as it may seem) completely misunderstood.
And that's so what's so intriguing about the Professor, I think—the fact that he's so variable.  Even using that word to describe him opens the door to wealth of possibilties.  He has the ability to be as grotestquely evil, as coldy calculating, or as sympathetically misunderstood, as the author or reader wants him to be.  His potential as an influencing force on the world of Sherlock Holmes is limitless, because there is almost nothing that we know about the man, and, therefore, there is almost nothing the man can't do.  So, when it seems like Moriarty is lurking behind the scenes in every Sherlock Holmes story, even though he was only in two of them? Well, that's because he could be there, he could be there lurking and organizing, and the readers would do well to remember it.
At the conclusion of the television adaptation of "The Red-Headed League," starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke, we find that it was Moriarty (played by Eric Porter) who organized the bank robbery critical to the plot (a change contrary to the plot of the orignal story) and he is none-too-pleased with Holmes's disruption of his plan.  Moriarty is visible in one of the final scenes of the episode, staring malevolently at Holmes and Watson from a distance, as Holmes says, "L'homme c'est rien—l'oeuvre c'est tout."  [The man is nothing, the work is everything.]
And so it goes with Professor Moriarty, I think.  The man is everywhere, but he is more than the incidentals of his character.  Ultimately, perhaps it matters very little how many brothers he had, where he went to school, or whether or not he ever married.  In the end, it is the fingerprint of his influence—his work—that is of the most importance.  And what we always remember, is the way in which he makes the world of Sherlock Holmes move.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "The Sherlockian"

Graham Moore; Publisher: Twelve (December 1, 2010)

At the time of this writing, it has been slightly more than six weeks since the release of Graham Moore’s debut novel, The SherlockianIn that time, it has sold out on, gone into a second printing (after nine days), made it to #34 on the “New York Times” bestseller list, and the Kindle edition of the novel is currently #2 on Amazon’s “British Detectives” list.  I could come up with several other ways to say, “This is a really very excellent book,” but I’ll let those statistics speak for themselves.  Needless to say, the novel has been very well-received indeed.  

Written as a dual-narrative, The Sherlockian tells the story of 21st century Sherlockian, Harold White, and 19th century author, Arthur Conan Doyle.  In the 21st century, Harold, a newly-inducted member of the Baker Street Irregulars, is on the hunt for the murderer of fellow Sherlockian Alex Cale (modeled loosely on the late Richard Lancelyn Green), a murderer who may or may not have also stolen a missing Conan Doyle diary, which Cale claimed to have recently rediscovered.  In the 19th century, Conan Doyle is living out the dramatic events that will appear in that missing volume of the diary, which are, not-so-incidentally, the months leading up to Doyle’s resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I’ll tell you that I read through the night to finish The Sherlockian, surviving the next day on two hours of sleep, and it was worth it.  It was worth it, because it had been a long time since a book had made me feel very nearly incapable of putting it down.  It had been a long time since I’d read a book that had not only one, but two, mysteries that I had to see through to the end, where the need to know was greater than the need to sleep.  It had been a long time since I wanted to solve a mystery myself, rather than wait for the characters to do it for me.

And it had also been a long time since I’d read a book that reminded me so profoundly of a love letter.  And make no mistake, for all that The Sherlockian is a mystery novel and an excellent example of crime and detective fiction—it is also a love letter.  It’s certainly a love letter to Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it’s also a love letter to books, to writing, to reading, to the nineteenth century, to mysteries, to detective fiction, to crime fiction, to scholarship, to London, to gaslight, to hansom cabs and cobblestone streets, to study and analysis, to the way we want to remember things, and also to the way they actually were.  But most importantly, I think The Sherlockian is a love letter to anyone who has ever loved something so much that it makes them a little crazy, and a little isolated.

Because for all his profound intelligence, Harold White—like the man he admires so fervently—is deeply and profoundly alone.  As is Moore’s Arthur Conan Doyle—the author portrays Doyle as a man that is terribly alone: alone in his desire to move on from Sherlock Holmes, and even more alone in that he isn’t certain he has anywhere else to go.  And I think that that anyone who has been involved in the study of Sherlock Holmes (or anything, really) to a consuming degree often feels a little isolated. 

Our families, for all they may indulge us, probably think we’re a little off; our friends sometimes don’t know what to say to us; and many times it feels like we don’t have a single person in the world to talk to about the thing we love the most.  After reading my very first post on this blog, a friend smiled amusedly at me, and said, “Oh, you reading people!”  And ultimately, it is the same way for Harold and Doyle.  To love something, to want something, or to truly know something, is to commit oneself to some degree of isolation.  Even Jeffrey Engels, a man who is supposedly Harold’s friend, says when Harold starts to use Holmes’s methods to investigate Cale’s murder, “Do you hear the words you're saying, Harold?  Do you have any idea what you sound like? [...] I never wanted to tell you this, but you always looked stupid in that [deerstalker] hat. Take it off...” Engels is a fellow Irregular; he is supposed to understand.

But Harold isn’t stupid.  He isn’t stupid, and he isn’t ridiculous, and he most certainly isn’t crazy.  And some readers may even wonder if he’s not very much like them.  And when Harold finds himself confronted with a seemingly impossible choice at the climax of the novel, I wondered how many readers would make the exact same choice, say the exact same things.  How many readers would rather know, no matter how painful the knowledge, than live with endless wondering?

To everyone else in and out of readers’ lives, the mystery may be why we do it, and why we care.  But for every Sherlockian, for every fan of Oz, for every child that never really left Wonderland, the real mystery is: why don’t you understand?         


Additional information about The Sherlockian can be found on Graham Moore’s blog, or follow him on Twitter.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Currently on Twitter...

Currently on my Twitter feed, I am recounting Dr. Watson's excellent tale of "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."

You can read "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" in its entirety online, or stop by my Twitter every weekday for an update. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

“I hear of Sherlock everywhere…” (GREE)

“Something troubling you, Sebastian?” [John Scared] asked.
Sebastian Moran rubbed his round chin before answering. “Not that I would doubt your methods, sir, but your treatment of Mr. Boxer is…unsporting.” (Whitechapel Gods, S.M. Peters, 2008)
Despite what those closest to me seem to believe, or may try to tell you, I do actually read things besides Sherlock Holmes.  Now, my reading habits tend to lean towards all things British, all things nineteenth century, and all things mystery (with a sharp turn towards detective fiction).  I confess this fully, and without embarrassment.  However, occasionally, I’ve picked up a book with the full intention of leaving the Great Detective to himself for awhile, and something Sherlockian manages to make an appearance in my reading material anyway.
In S.M. Peters’s Whitechapel Gods, for example, I was more than a little surprised to turn the page and find myself nose-to-nose with Colonel Sebastian Moran.  So to speak.  The novel is steampunk, and while that’s typically a nineteenth century genre, Peters’s novel is filled with so many wonderful, original characters that at times it’s a touch tricky to keep track of them all.  And Colonel Moran?  Well, after some brief interactions with the novel’s main villain (naturally), he disappears for large portions of the novel and is barely heard from again.  Von Herder and his famous air gun also make slightly more substantive appearances.
Which might leave the (Sherlockian) reader wondering: Why?  Why is he here?  Why bring him on board at all?  Why not create someone new?
Similarly, in Libba Bray’s excellent Victorian young adult trilogy about nineteenth century heroine Gemma Doyle, I felt as if I were being given a sly wink-and-nudge at times throughout the series.  In the second novel, Rebel Angels, one of the characters announces that she has taken rooms on Baker Street, which made me raise an eyebrow and smile, but not dwell too much on it.  But, later on in The Sweet Far Thing, when Gemma has to set her bookshelf to rights, she very carefully and pointedly sets a copy of A Study in Scarlet on it.  And I began to wonder.
I began to wonder if there wasn’t some sort of point to all of these references (which I won’t bore you with enumerating in their entirety, and I’m certain you have some of your own).  I began to wonder if there wasn’t something to be said for them.  It is entirely likely that at least some of these references are each author’s own personal regard for Sherlock Holmes, and that can answer away many of the more flippant references to street names and books on shelves.  But Colonel Moran, true to form, proved to be a trickier devil for me to shake off.   
And I began wonder… what if we look at it as a type of reminder, and not just some glorified bon mot on the part of the author?  What if we were to think of it as the alarm that occasionally goes off on our internal clocks?  That’s a large part of what detective fiction is all about, yes?  It reminds us to look around.  To see and observe.  To notice the stain on the wall, the footprints in the grass, and the fingerprints on the chandelier, if necessary.  To remember that no one is innocent and no one is guilty; not until we have the evidence to back it all up.
After all, in Talking About Detective Fiction (2009), P.D. James reminds us:
“…the detective story produces a reassuring relief from the tensions and responsibilities of daily life; it is particularly popular in times of unrest, anxiety and uncertainty, when society can be faced with problems which no money, political theories or good intentions seem able to solve or alleviate.  And here in the detective story we have a problem at the heart of the novel, and one which is solved, not by luck or divine intervention, but by human ingenuity, human intelligence and human courage.  It confirms our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption and chaos.”
What I’ve come to realize is that when I stumble across a Sherlockian reference in the least likely of stories, the references mean more than a casual wink and nod at a knowing reader, it’s a reminder that, no matter how deep into the mires of insanity the story may have fallen, we will manage to dig out.  There will be a solution, and a satisfying one, and it will make sense.  Even if you have to tilt your head and squint for it to do so.  Rights will be righted, and wrongs will be punished; and even if something or someone manages to escape, it shall all fit together in the end.  And we will do it together, if only because we can.
So the next time I’m reading a book and the Diogenes Club or the Giant Rat of Sumatra or a Persian slipper filled with tobacco makes an unexpected appearance, I’ll probably still smile, raise an eyebrow, or even laugh (to the unending confusion of those dearest to me), but more importantly, I’ll be relieved.  Because I’ll know that we’re going somewhere—this book, the author, and I—that it will have a point, and it will make sense.  And I’ll be more likely to stick through to the end.  Because that’s what Holmes would do.
It may seem a rather oblique method of conveyance, but I prefer to think of it as a careful one.  As the man himself once said, "They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains…It's a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work (STUD).”
COMING SOON: Book Review--The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore.