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.


  1. You seem to uncover and pull together all the right threads as you broach each of these important Sherlockian topics! I especially like the questions you ask, your theories, and your boldness in offering conclusions. Concerning Moriarty, you hone in upon a paradox--his sparse appearances, his ubiquitous "presence." You evoke that presence in just a few words, so vividly fraught with the atmosphere, I almost see the fog of London rising from the page! Finally, I like your explanation for why he seems to lurking behind more scenes than the two he appears in: "Well, that's because he could be there, he could be there lurking and organizing, and the readers would do well to remember it." I will!

  2. You pose a fascinating question here, one I have thought about myself, but I think it extends even beyond Moriarty. Part of what makes the stories just genius is that some of the characters are so vivid and lend themselves to the imagination so richly that even though they occupy a tiny portion of the canon, they have become iconic. Moriarty is of course the most successful example of this, but I think Irene Adler (a character I have written about) is another -- she's only in one story! -- and Mycroft of course, and that ridiculous specter of a dog. Who hasn't heard of the Hound of the Baskervilles? Conan Doyle had a marvelous skill at creating characters who have entered pop consciousness in a way completely out of proportion to their presence in his work. I LOVE it!

  3. Great post. I just re-read The Final Problem, and it struck me what an intense villain Moriarty is, even though he only makes one actual appearance. For me, I think it's Holmes's "Napoleon of Crime" speech, as well as his supposed death, that make me take Moriarty seriously. I do like the foreshadowing of his character in the Granada series, as well; it seems quite believable to me.