Moriarty: A Study In Sherlock

Moriarty: A Study In Sherlock

Written by Tathagata Banerjee


Sherlock Holmes, actually never said the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  

P.G. Woodhouse, the legendary figure of literary pantheon, penned a novel called ‘Psmith, Journalist’ in which the titular character uses the phrase as a reference to the Doyle characters. The apocryphal nature of literature – and maybe life – has done the rest. Ermes Marana, the Derridaean figure from Italian novelist Calvino’s “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller”, would probably be happy.  

Tradition, Eliot observed, always evolves. Like a Woodhouse quote that has become the epigraph of Holmes canon, the stories themselves had been deconstructed, restructured, thought over again. And with that, our collective understanding of James Moriarty has evolved. The Professor – and an antithesis to Baker Street’s good detective – is a figure who remains to be studied from various diverse perspectives.  

Holmes himself once quipped to Watson that if the doctor had a couple of years to spare, he’d recommended spending it in the study of Moriarty. Given that, this attempt of me here is obviously limited. Nevertheless, let’s dig dipper into the myth of the primordial antagonist. Professor James Moriarty appears only twice in the Holmes canon, the first time in Doyle’s famous ‘The Final Problem’. Published in December, 1893 – the story was supposed to be the curtain call for the adventures of fiction’s greatest detective. The fans’ genuine uproar, coupled with Doyle’s own financial troubles, led the author to resurrect the fallen Sherlock from the depths of the Reichenbach Fall. The other person who took the fall alongside Holmes would not return from the dead like his nemesis, but Doyle would go on to write a prequel called ‘The Valley of Fear’ to flesh out the Professor’s character details. Published in 1915, the outing was the final novel by Doyle about the people of 221B, Baker Street – and a prequel to ‘The Final Problem’. An interesting continuity error occurs here. In the novel, Watson gets to know about Moriarty from Holmes ; whereas in the story – which sequentially takes place later in time – the doctor had no idea about the mastermind criminal’s existence.  

Granted, Moriarty was created as a Deux ex machina to end Holmes’ journey. And yet, he remains one of the most fascinating villains of all time. In ‘The Final Problem’, Holmes uses a phrase to describe Moriarty that has now become iconic – “The Napoleon Of Crime”. That’s a poetic way to put who he was – a ruthless conqueror, a master of his profession. “He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.  He has a brain of the first order”, says Holmes about Moriarty. These words, remarkably, can be used to describe Holmes himself. And this is where Doyle succeeds. The antagonist mirroring the protagonist has been a tried and tested trope. Doyle runs with the notion and successfully establish it in a span of a short story. Moriarty is everything Sherlock is, but with a key difference. He’s also everything that Holmes chooses not to be.  

Half the evil of the city, Holmes told Watson, is orchestrated by Moriarty. The man is at the top of the food chain, barely getting his own hands dirty. But he’s in control of everything that is happening in his criminal empire. Every crime can be traced back to him, but one just can’t do so. Moriarty, says Holmes, is like a spider – “He sits motionless… in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.”  

An antagonist who’s matched his intellectual capabilities. That’s an observation Holmes made during the short story. And there’s ample proof to back up the statement. The Professor was a mathematical genius, penning a work on binomial theorem at the age on 21. The work led to Moriarty becoming the Mathematical Chair of one of London’s universities. The prodigy would go on to write the book ‘The Dynamics of an Asteroid’, a masterwork on pure mathematics.

In ‘The Valley of Fear’, Holmes comments that the author’s brilliance was so much beyond his peers, that it was rumoured none was qualified enough to present a critique of the book. Even outside of the Holmes-universe, the characterisation of Moriarty is inherently interesting in Doyle’s inspirations behind the figure. The author borrowed the phrase the ‘Napoleon Of Crime’ from real life description by the Scotland Yard for Adam Worth. Worth was not only a real life criminal genius, but also one of the many actual individuals on whom Doyle based Moriarty.  

The Professor, much like Holmes, had a respect for his enemy’s intellectual capabilities. But much like a delusional pseduo-king who had a kingdom do save, Moriarty was ruthless and narcissistic in his megalomania. In ‘The Final Problem’, he tells Holmes, “You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organisation, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realise.  You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden underfoot.” The detective goes head-to-head with him, and the climatic event at Reichenbach Fall captures the duo plunging to death together. Absolutely poetic.  

Untill Holmes came back in ‘The Empty House’, that is.  

The shadow of Moriarty haunts the Holmes adventures throughout. In ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder’, Holmes observes with a macabre sense of humour that as an expert on criminology, to him – “London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Moriarty”. Holmes, and by extension Doyle himself, is fascinated by the Professor even after he’s gone. Hundreds of years later, in retelling and adaptations, Moriarty keeps coming back with intriguing personas, because much like the detective we are all invested in the narrative of the shadowy figure of the evil genius.  

The closest version of Moriarty to the source material appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Conal Doyle adaptation, “Sherlock Holmes : A Game of Shadows”. Ritchie is an otherwise gifted director, but his interpretation of the London sleuth has been somewhat uneven in both the films he made. In the aforementioned sequal, Professor Moriarty emerges from the shadows to take on Holmes. Jared Harris is an iconic actor, his recent work on HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ had gained him worldwide praise. In ‘Game of Shadows’, Harris presents the Professor quite as Sir Arthur’s stories have envisioned him to be. He’s a genius in academia, a ruthless dictator of his crime syndicate behind the curtains. Harris presents Moriarty’s barely disguised sociopathy with genuine layers. The Professor’s first meeting with the detective face-to-face is underlined by unspoken palpable tension, as the duo challenge each other from a intellectual highground. Harris’ Moriarty is calm, calculated, dripping in polished charisma and a pretentious humbleness that covers up the megalomania. The often underused Robert Downey Jr. – a man condemned to typecasting due to his fantastic portrayal of Tony Stark – is absolutely brilliant in this scene as Holmes, going up against Moriarty. The film’s narrative quality – and the performances – unfortunately doesn’t keep up the same level of quality throughout. The climatic fall is turned into an action sequence, missing the entire point of two intellectual masterminds’ battle of wits. Harris is mostly good, but a limiting script never allows Moriarty to be more than what he was in the Doyle pages. There’s nothing new in this version of the Professor, even if this is not necessarily a bad rendition.  

One of the more exciting and interesting version of James Moriarty appears in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’, a modern day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian era works. The BBC production in its earlier run had been the talk of the town for the entire globe, becoming an instant phenomenon in revolutionising the Holmes adaptations. Lead by an extraordinary Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, the show was already a treat for anyone who has ever been a fan of the Doyle lore – and then Andrew Scott showed up as Jim Moriarty. ‘Sherlock’ presents Moriarty as a consulting criminal, quite literally matching the Scotland Yard title for his nemesis. Holmes, in this version, catagorizes himself as a high functioning sociopath. It’s a definition which – in an interesting reversal of the ‘Final Problem’ scenario, can be applied to Moriarty himself. Scott’s version is a far cry from the world-weary calculated Professor from the original stories. His Moriarty – the shortened ‘Jim’ is a subtle nod to the youthful nature of the man – is a maniac in all his glory. Scott turns in a performance of a lifetime as Moriarty, a gun-toting psychopath who kills because it’s equal parts business, and equal parts a personal pleasure. He’s a young man who jumps into chaos head-first, while listening to Queen’s iconic Bohemian Rhapsody. This Moriarty is charismatic, devilishly charming, with a brutal and morbid sense of humour. Like the original Professor, Jim does hide in the shadows for a while. But when he emerges, he puts on a show every single time, interested to see how his audience reacts. The chaos feeds him. Moriarty challenges Holmes in incredible ways, as Scott and Cumberbatch present one of the most fascinating onscreen rivalries of modern times. Scott’s Moriarty is a proud gay man, which is a fantastic inclusive portrayal and representation of the LGBTQ+ community. The performance went on to win Scott a BAFTA award, and he had gone on to establish himself as one of the finest actors of this generation with an incredible turn in Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece, ‘Fleabag’. ‘Sherlock’, the show, however, went to misguided directions in its later seasons. The messy writing and the show itself getting obsessed over how great a villain Moriarty was, limited its scope of imagination. The later seasons arguably weaken Moriarty as a character. The show tries to incorporate parts of Doyle’s Moriarty in another character – Charles Augustus Magnussen – who Holmes even describes as the ‘Napoleon Of Blackmail’. But the character never came even closer to the charm or ruthlessness of Moriarty.  

One of the most imaginative, intriguing and revolutionary adaptation of Moriarty comes from CBS’ “Elementary”, a defining and landmark re-imagining of Holmes canon. The show took Holmes out of the comfort of London settings and put him in USA, a lonely man trying to recover from drug addiction. Doyle’s off-hand statements on Holmes’ drug abuse takes centre stage here, and the sleuth is set up with a sober companion in order to help him get better. The companion turns out to be Dr. Watson. But with a brilliant twist, the good doctor is Joan Watson – a woman in this interpretation. Lucy Liu puts a tremendous spin on Watson, transforming the trusty sidekick to an ally, an equal partner of Sherlock. Joan is the beating heart of the saga, the unquestionable finest character of the show – with Liu giving an iconic performance that arguably towers over everyone else in the programme. Through her, the show depicts the messy society which is dripping in misogyny. Putting her in the same pedestal as Holmes, the show sends a brilliant feminist statement. And just when the audience thinks they understand the show now, ‘Elementary’ pulls one of the biggest rugpulls in the history of television. Like many adaptations, the show depicts Irene Adler – the iconic Holmes antagonist from Doyle’s ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’ – to be a romantic interest for Sherlock. A tremendously smart woman, an intellectual match for Holmes who, like the original story, refers to her as “The Woman”. In ‘Elementary’, Adler is thought to be killed by Moriarty and later is revealed to be held captive by the criminal for ages. Moriarty is a mysterious figure, a man’s voice on the phone, who toys with an emotional Holmes. With a chilling and brilliant twist, the show reveals that in its iteration – Irene Adler is Moriarty herself. Revealed to be Jamie Moriarty, the criminal mastermind has faked her own death/kidnap for greater purposes. Combining Adler with Moriarty and turning the iconic villain into a woman character is a fantastic twist, given how the original Holmes stories and most adaptations treated the woman characters of the Sherlock canon in an unmistakably negligent way. Jamie Moriarty – played to perfection by Natalie Dormer – puts it perfectly when she observes, “As if men had a monopoly on murder.” Much like Watson, Jamie/Adler is another angle through which the show does terrific introspection of the world which treats powerful, smart and ambitious women horribly; whereas men had always gotten a free pass in this patriarchal world. Turning the Holmes-Moriarty rivalry into a battle of wits tinged with a notion of romance adds another complex layer to the duo’s dynamic. Even in ‘Sherlock’, the two nemesis have a flirtatious banter even when they are in a race to the bottom. In ‘Elementary’, the arch-enemies are literal lovers. Whereas turning Adler a lover of Holmes arguably takes away her individuality and agency that is present in the actual story, ‘Elementary’ ends up being a rare adaptation which flips the trope on its head with the double punches of Adler being Moriarty. Irene remained one such rare competitors who beat Holmes, in the Doyle canon. In ‘Elementary’, too, she remains the person with an upper hand. Jonny Lee Miller is sublime as Holmes, and his scenes with Dormer has pure artistic quality. Dormer’s busy schedules and popularity caused by her roles in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ and the Hunger Games film franchise had led her being unable to drop by in the show eventually, causing the Moriarty throughline getting a bit messy in the show. Although ‘Elementary’ adapts the mythology of the figure into the show, with Moriarty’s shadowy presence being felt throughout. At one point, a certain character – a professor – steps in Moriarty’s position, as the show tips its hat to the ‘Professor’ aspect of the antagonist. The show also does an interesting experiment with the figure of Moriarty. In Dormer’s absence, the show creates a character called Odin Reichenbach – a reference to the Fall where Moriarty and Holmes fell to doom – who acts as a stand-in figure for the classic Holmes villain. James Frain gives a solid performance as Reichenbach, and with him the show adapts some elements of ‘The Final Problem’, including the story’s much discussed climax.  

Moriarty, hundreds of years later, remains elusive. The primordial evil who’s evolved into figures who have every shades of colour and emotions. The motivations vary, the driving forces change – the brilliance remains. Whatever remains – says Holmes about the solution to a problem – after the elimination of the impossible, that is the answer, however improbable it may seem.  

Moriarty, remains.


Tathagata Banerjee
Tathagata Banerjee

A lover of poetry and short stories, Tathagata also writes sports related articles and reviews on books and movies. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: