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Sherlock v Moriarty: perfect foes

What makes Moriarty the best villain ever, asks Anthony Horowitz?

Moriarty: Sherlock Holmes meets his nemesis. Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Andrew Scott as Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Andrew Scott as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock Photo: BBC

 

By Anthony Horowitz

“He is the Napoleon of Crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows every quiver of each of them.”

Who else could it be but Moriarty, the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and quite simply the greatest villain in literatureever created? Thanks to the artist, Sidney Paget, we know exactly what he looked like although Conan Doyle certainly helped with a memorable description: “…extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head.” A great many master criminals have caught the public imagination – Hannibal Lecter, Fu Manchu and any one of the James Bond villains spring to mind – but none have done so quite so successful as Professor James Moriarty.

And yet, here’s the strange thing. He’s only mentioned in one novella, The Valley of Fear and another four or five stories, a very small part of Doyle’s canon. More to the point, he doesn’t make a real appearance in any of them. Yes, he visits Sherlock Holmes in his rooms at 221b Baker Street at the start of The Final Problem and wrestles with him at the end, but we never actually meet him personally. Both times he is described in reported speech and although Watson glimpses “a tall man pushing his way furiously through the crowd” at Victoria station, we don’t see him ourselves and we only have Holmes’s word for it that he actually exists.

Given how little we know about him and how little he does (spoiler alert – he doesn’t even manage to murder Holmes successfully) it’s astonishing really that he has had such a grip on our imagination since his first incarnation in 1893. He has become the star of the BBC’s Sherlock with Andrew Scott winning a well-deserved BAFTA for his performance. The last series finished with the character supposedly dead but his image flashing up on every television screen in England. Jared Harris clearly enjoyed himself in the second cinema outing, even edging Robert Downey Jnr off the screen, which is saying something. The character of Moriarty has been appropriated by Batman, by Futurama and by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In The Seven Percent Solution, Nicholas Meyer turned him into Holmes’s tutor, responsible for the childhood trauma that shaped his life. John Gardner wrote three novels about him. I have just written one myself.

The Moriarty of my novel is missing, believed dead. His legacy is investigated by two policemen – Detective Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard (a Doyle creation) and a Pinkerton’s agent called Frederick Chase. The book was inspired, principally, by two Sherlock Holmes stories: The Final Problem, in which Holmes dies and The Empty House, in which he returns. Together, they simply don’t add up. Why is Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s sidekick, hiding at the falls? Who is the strange Swiss boy who lures Dr Watson away? Why, having killed Moriarty, does Holmes feel the need to go into hiding for the next four years…the so-called “great hiatus”? Why does he not tell his best friend, Watson, that he survived?

There are no answers to these questions. The simple fact is that Doyle, having got fed up with his most famous creation, decided to kill him off and then, tempted by astronomical sums of money, had to find a way to bring him back again. This required a number of contortions which, looked at closely, make no real sense. And it’s interesting to note that the magnificent creation that is Professor James Moriarty was created with one sole purpose: to be the assassin of Sherlock Holmes. It is his only role. He never returns. He has nothing else to do.

And even in the stories in which he appears, there is very little to Moriarty. He really is a phantom in the wind and when Holmes tells Watson that he is responsible for pretty much all the crime in London, the reader must surely wonder why he’s never been mentioned before. That wonderful epithet, “the Napoleon of Crime”, doesn’t even belong to him. It was appropriated by Doyle after he heard a police inspector describing another criminal, the very real American thief and smuggler, Adam Worth. Even his name came second-hand when two Irish boys, the Moriarty brothers, arrived at Stonyhurst College, the Catholic school where Doyle himself was a pupil. What then is Moriarty’s secret? Why has he endured when others have faded? And – most pertinently, – if you are in the business of creating literary villains, what might you learn from him? It’s certainly a rule of fiction that all heroes have to have an adversary worthy of them. Harry Potter and Voldemort. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar. King Arthur and Mordred. So where exactly do you begin?

Well, even compiling that short list, it seems that many of these characters have a close association with the greatest enemy of all and the one that no man can hope to beat: death. Moriarty, Voldemort and Mordred all reference the Latin word, mortem, and to them might be added Morgana, another enemy for King Arthur and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings who lives, after all, in Mordor. Even the Darth of Darth Vadar is not so very far, homonymously, from death – it’s fair to assume that George Lucas might not have been taught Latin at school. Cruella de Vil, often cited as Disney’s greatest villain, is another unforgettable name with a nudge beyond the grave. So if you’re intending to create a long-lasting, bad character, a quiet nod towards mortality might be a good idea.

The fatal struggle at the Reichenbach Falls depicted by Sidney Paget (Bridgeman Art Library)

The next secret might be that less is more. It’s precisely because we know so little about Moriarty that he is so open to interpretation and, indeed, to re-imagination. JK Rowling was probably smart to leave Voldemort out of the third and sixth Harry Potter books – he barely appears in the fifth too. If you get to know the villains too well, they lose their efficacy. This might have been the fate of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most striking creations of modern times. He makes only occasional appearances in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs but by the next two books, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, he is centre stage and the more disgustingly he acts (eating the brains of a man who is still alive and talking), the less effective he seems. Young Hannibal may have been turned into a TV series by NBC but it its ratings figures have dipped, possibly because it’s too nasty.

Moriarty never does anything cruel or disgusting. Indeed, at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes is allowed to inform Watson of his supposed fate after he has obtained, from Moriarty, “…his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received.” Watson finds the note, tucked underneath Holmes’s silver cigarette case. Even Holmes admits that “my horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” The truth is that Moriarty has never killed anybody. He is a gentleman.

It does help, in literature, if the villains are literate. Every one of James Bond’s adversaries speaks well (with the possible exception of Donovan Grant who is mad and, worse, working class and who gives himself away by having a Windsor knot in his tie, “the mark of a cad”). Dr No is scrupulously polite – “You have enjoyed your dinner, Mr Bond?” – before he opens the door to the torture chamber. In Moonraker, Bond’s first job is to save Hugo Drax from social disgrace when he’s found to be cheating at cards. Moriarty may wish to kill Holmes but he still “awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions that lie between us.” All very civilized.

Appearances clearly matter. Moriarty is outlandish. Long John Silver and Captain Hook are both suitably disfigured. Cruella has very strange hair. Bond villains have all manner of physical peculiarities from Scaramanga’s third nipple to Drax’s crooked teeth and Blofeld’s eyes with the pupils completely surrounded by white. Push this too far, of course, and the result will be ridiculous as can be witnessed by some of the Bond films: Drax having webbed fingers, for example, or worse, Jaws with his iron teeth. As a child, I had nightmares about one villain and I still see him sometimes in my dreams. “…tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan…one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present.” That was Dr Fu Manchu who obeyed all the rules for longevity, but who was also, sadly, Chinese…“the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” It was not his adversary, Nayland Smith, who finished him off but political correctness. “The world will hear from me again,” Christopher Lee used to intone at the end of the films and even now I still rather hope it will.

In summary, the successful literary über-villain will be physically impressive, intelligent, articulate and probably won’t be called Bill Smith. Statistically, he is more likely to be a man than a woman although of course there have been famous exceptions…Lady Macbeth, Mrs Danvers, Irma Bunt and the great Rosa Klebb for example. The modern writer will be careful about ethnicity and disability and even a gay villain (Scaramanga, it was noted, was unable to whistle which at the time was believed to be an indicator of homosexuality) is probably out.

And of course, the final paradox. No matter how brilliant, fearsome and well-organised the villains are, they must always, invariably expect to be beaten by their adversaries. If they’re lucky, they’ll just have time to explain what it was they were planning to do before they are prevented from doing it. At the end of the day, Holmes and Moriarty grapple on the edge of the waterfall but only one of them gets thrown in. No prizes for guessing which one it is.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz (Orion, £9) is published on October 23

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