There is No Moriarty

Saturday, May 4th, 2013 Books / Writing

In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was done with Sherlock Holmes, the literary “consulting detective” he had created in 1886, whose appearances in two novels and 23 short stories had made Doyle wealthy and famous (and who is generally considered to be the most popular fictional character in history) but whose formulaic adventures had become tiresome to their author. “I think of slaying Holmes in the last [of the stories he was contracted to write] and winding him up for good,” Doyle wrote to his mother—“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” Doyle did kill Holmes—or, rather, he tried to kill him, and ultimately failed—and the circumstances and effects of this attempted “protagicide” comprise one of the most convoluted and modern (arguably post-modern) recursive knots in fiction.


Having determined to get rid of Holmes, Doyle followed a series of logical steps that must be extrapolated from the published text (since his literary methodology is undocumented)—but those steps are clear. First, Holmes had to die, rather than merely departing like Peter Pan. That conclusion had, clearly, already been reached when he make that speculative remark to his mother: ending the story of Holmes and Watson for good would require the detective to sacrifice himself both to guarantee the finality of his departure and to avoid the risk of anticlimax.

This question of “climax” (or its absence) is crucial because Doyle had innovated, not just in the creation of the character of Holmes, who was intended as an improvement upon (and rebuttal of) Edgar Allan Poe’s invention of Auguste Dupin,* but, perhaps more important, in the stringing together of a series of short stories focusing around a single character, forming a continuous narrative with its own formal structure, which had never been done before. Doyle’s arrangement with The Strand Magazine suited this template, allowing monthly anecdotal “installments” in Holmes’ saga to build each upon the last, sketching out an accumulation of depth and detail. Because The Final Problem (1893) would follow from this existing series of episodic (but self-contained) stories, it needed scale and gravitas fitting to its role as the conclusion to an overarching über-story that readers had been following for six years.

So Holmes had to be killed while doing something important—more important than anything he had already been shown to have done—facing an adversary greater than any he had previously faced. This was clearly problematic for Doyle because no such adversary existed. Hubris always faces Nemesis—Beowulf has Grendel; Valjean has Javert; Frodo has Sauron; Dorothy has the Wicked Witch; Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader—and all these diametric confrontations are laid out in the first act, allowing both for mounting suspense and for dramatic closure. But there was nothing like that in Sherlock Holmes’ world. So Doyle had to create Holmes’ “long-standing” Nemesis (in modern terms, “retcon” him) and, somehow, work around the obvious fact that this towering, ultimate impending conflict came out of nowhere:

       “You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said he.
       “Ay, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried. “The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life. […] I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.”

Watson’s ignorance excuses our own: Moriarty’s conspicuous non-existence (and his sudden, last-act arrival into the story) are evidence, not of Doyle’s revisionism, but of Moriarty’s ultimate significance. He’s so important that you’ve never heard of him.

Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes’ “friend and chronicler,” who narrates the stories while participating in them, is another of Doyle’s structural innovations. Beyond his crucial emotional role (both as a balancing anchor to Holmes and as a foil for his idiosyncrasies and wit), and beyond the suspenseful purposes Watson serves (ensuring that the reader is fed the clues and other information in a sufficiently exciting manner and sequence) and the explication Watson provides (since his bafflement at Holmes’ deductive conclusions prompts lengthy explanations for the reader), Watson is a groundbreaking metafictional device. In a way that presages far more modern and radical 20th century fiction, Watson’s “accounts” exist in their own fictional universe: the characters whom Holmes and Watson encounter have read the stories themselves—the same texts that we are reading. (“I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler,” Holmes’ brother Mycroft tells Watson upon meeting him.) The importance of this Pirandello-esque trickery, which Doyle deploys almost immediately—in The Sign of the Four (1890), the second Holmes adventure, Holmes tells Watson that he has himself read the first, A Study in Scarlet (1886), and disliked its overly dramatic presentation—can’t be overestimated in its effect of bringing a faux-journalistic immediacy and force to the Holmes “canon.” And Watson’s (and Doyle’s) framing device is crucial to the presentation and success of Holmes’ (intended) denouement.

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Watson begins “The Final Problem” by insisting that he did not want to write it. Running through a synopsis of his published “accounts” of Holmes’ cases, from A Study in Scarlet (a homicide investigation that’s Holmes’ first experience working with Scotland Yard) to “The Naval Treaty” (1893) (in which Holmes’ actions essentially prevent a European war), Watson explains:

It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill. My hand has been forced, however, by the recent letters in which Colonel James Moriarty defends the memory of his brother, and I have no choice but to lay the facts before the public exactly as they occurred. I alone know the absolute truth of the matter, and I am satisfied that the time has come when no good purpose is to be served by its suppression.

So this recounting of Holmes’ Götterdämmerung arrives at a fitting time, but abruptly—and the abruptness is meant to result from Watson’s reluctance to tell the story. He goes on to admit that the only reason he’s compelled to overcome this reluctance is the existence of conflicting, erroneous reports of the events: “As far as I know, there have been only three accounts in the public press […] Of these the first and second were extremely condensed, while the last is, as I shall now show, an absolute perversion of the facts. It lies with me to tell for the first time what really took place between Professor Moriarty and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”

Doyle had used this trick before—in his role as metafictional filter, Watson is frequently “setting straight” what happened, flattering the illusion of reality (and of the “journalistic” nature of his “accounts”). But “The Final Problem” has two other features that are unique: First, there is no case. No crime is investigated, no clues are amassed, no deduction is performed. Moriarty stands apart from all previous Holmes antagonists in that everything bad he has done is irrelevant to the present action. To be sure, Holmes hits florid rhetorical notes describing him as “the Napoleon of crime,” and hinting darkly at his role as “the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city,” but no details are provided; no explanation is given (and no crimes are solved). Alone among Holmes villains, Moriarty gets by on pure atmosphere; pure bombast.

The second unique element in the story is how little of it is actually seen. The lens through which Watson perceives the main action is unusually opaque. There had been other Holmes stories taking place entirely offstage, such as “The Five Orange Pips” (1891),† but their concluding scenes (wherein Holmes works his deductive magic) were always front-and-center. Aside from a great deal of (admittedly exciting) racing around by train, “The Final Problem” contains just two actual scenes: both are direct, isolated confrontations between Holmes and Moriarty, and both are presented solely through Holmes’ account. In the first, Moriarty shows up at Holmes’ Baker Street rooms with an ultimatum, demanding that he forestall his pursuit, since “The situation is becoming an impossible one”:

       “ ‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he.
       “ ‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.
       “ ‘You stand fast?’
       “ ‘Absolutely.’

The total lack of substance in this exchange would be conspicuous even if an author less in love with detail than Doyle had written it. Moriarty recites the dates on which Holmes has “incommoded,” “inconvenienced” and “hampered” his criminal activities, but exactly what those activities are remains unspecified. In fact, throughout the entire story there isn’t a single clear description of a single criminal act Moriarty has performed.

The second Holmes/Moriarty encounter is their famous fight to the (mutual) death atop the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, which, again, we do not witness: Watson sees and describes the fittingly Gothic location but is cleverly waylaid and returns after the fact, reconstructing the fatal events (“I began to think of Holmes’s own methods and to try to practise them in reading this tragedy,” he explains—“It was, alas, only too easy to do”). His deductive efforts are helped along by the verbose note Holmes has left pinned under a rock for him, which, Holmes explains, Moriarty has magnanimously agreed to let him write (the implausibility of which somehow never occurs to the grief-stricken reader). The adversaries engage in a hand-to-hand struggle that propel them off the cliff together and into the falls (as the Swiss police help to determine after an examination of the scene) and so concludes Watson’s hagiography of “him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.” Doyle had apparently succeeded in ridding himself of his problem, by means of a Nemesis as elemental and titanic as he is fortuitous and utterly free of substance or detail.

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes (as heralded with enormous boldface type in The Strand Magazine) after ten years (or, three years of fictional time) was very much an unwilling concession to popular demand. Once “The Final Problem” was published (according to the uncredited Introduction to the 1976 Complete Sherlock Holmes Treasury),‡ “Doyle was looked upon as an assassin; people wept; men wore mourning bands to their offices, and Doyle was called a brute by at least one outraged reader.” But the author was resolute: “I couldn’t revive him if I would, at least not for years,” he wrote to a friend, “for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté-de-foie-gras, of which I once ate too much.” By 1901 Doyle’s palate was presumably cleansed (and the financial stakes had grown ridiculously high), prompting him to write and publish the carefully-backdated, novel-length The Hound of the Baskervilles, for which Londoners stood in line at the printer’s—and which remains the best known of Holmes’ adventures. (It takes place before Reichenbach Falls, and contains no references to Holmes’ “upcoming” demise.) The circulation of The Strand increased by 30,000 copies with the first installment and remained high throughout, obviously indicating which way the wind was blowing, and finally, Doyle (interviewed by Harper’s Weekly that same year), seemed to be softening in his resolve:

I know that my friend Dr. Watson is a most trustworthy man, and I gave the utmost credit to his story of the dreadful affair in Switzerland. He may have been mistaken, of course. It may not have been Mr. Holmes who fell from the ledge at all, or the whole affair might be the result of hallucination.

Compared to “The Final Problem,” “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903) is a straightforward crimefighting adventure, requiring none of the backing and filling of its predecessor—Doyle has a much easier time knocking over his house of cards than he did building it.** There are no tiresome conflicting “accounts” to rebut; instead, Watson hits the ground running in the opening paragraph, setting the stage—springtime, 1894, when “all London was interested, and the fashionable world dismayed” by a recent sensational murder—leading swiftly to his impulsive trip to the scene of the crime (old habits die hard) and his run-in with a decrepit bookseller, who follows him home, only to be unmasked as Holmes in disguise. This brilliant sequence (one of Doyle’s best) is so gratifying, so unabashedly indulgent and enjoyable, that the reader may be forgiven for not looking too closely at the explanation that follows, in which Holmes essentially takes “The Final Problem” apart.

Of course, Holmes did not fall off the cliff—he bested Moriarty in combat (“I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu,†† or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me”) and watched him plunge, alone, to his death. It wasn’t Doyle who got everything wrong; it was Watson, whose entire analysis of the crime scene (which Holmes has read, and characteristically disdains) may be summarily set aside. The “Napoleon of crime,” however, is gone for good, his purpose served, and all of his lieutenants and his entire criminal organization have been brought to justice, thanks to the information Holmes provided to the police before his and Watson’s departure for Switzerland. (Scotland Yard got their hands on this material thanks to instructions Holmes included in his final note to Watson, which, again, Moriarty quite preposterously allowed to be written.) So the entire Moriarty criminal edifice—the “web” with “a thousand radiations”—is now gone as quickly as it was conjured into place, except for Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s second-in-command (now “the most cunning and dangerous criminal in London”), whom Holmes is, of course, poised to capture. “I have a piece of work for us both to-night which, if we can bring it to a successful conclusion, will in itself justify a man’s life on this planet,” he finishes, and, a mere 2,000 words later, Moran is in custody and the entire grandiose saga is over, without a single criminal detail ever having been provided: Moran is guilty of the “unusual and inexplicable” murder that opened the story, but Doyle doesn’t even bother to provide a motive—“There we come into the realms of conjecture,” Holmes tells Watson, “where even the most logical mind may be at fault.”

And that’s it for James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, Sherlock Holmes’ vaunted arch enemy. He is referred to in four other stories, always in passing, and always merely as a point of comparison, an abstracted absolute invoked as one would refer to Everest or Einstein; and he appears briefly in The Valley of Fear (1915), the last of the four Sherlock Holmes novels (the plot of which is backdated so as to precede the events in Switzerland), but he and Holmes never meet in that book, and Moriarty plays an indistinct, ancillary role. Doyle seemed to understand that he had created, not a character, not an antagonist, but a symbol—one that persists beyond its immediate utility (which, as we have seen, resulted directly from the mechanics of an author attempting to escape his self-imposed obligations to his characters), and, ultimately, is as enduring as Holmes himself.

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A century later, Sherlock Holmes is still with us—perhaps more than ever, this decade (given his current tripartite revival on British and American television and in Hollywood)—and, with him, Professor James Moriarty. What’s especially interesting is how subsequent authors have struggled to fill in the gaps in Doyle’s spare outline: The BBC/Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series (1984-1994), starring Jeremy Brett, while unusually faithful to the original texts, took great pains to thread Moriarty into the fabric of many of the earlier adventures, making good on Holmes’ insistence (in “The Final Problem”) on his adversary’s ubiquity and the reach of his criminal influence—essentially, providing the narrative substance that Doyle only hinted at. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. have faced incarnations of Moriarty far more complex, devious and accomplished than anything found in Doyle’s work.

Probably the most intriguing (and devilishly sophisticated) extrapolation of Doyle’s techniques, however, was Nicholas Meyer’s excellent pastiche novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), which works aggressively in the opposite direction. After a clever, Nabokovian “preface,” in which he pretends to have come by a previously-undiscovered Watson manuscript, Meyer then creates a flawless simulacrum of Doyle’s style and format, in which “the truth” is “finally” revealed: James Moriarty was merely Holmes’ math tutor at university, and it’s only the detective’s cocaine-fueled delusions that have elevated him, in Holmes’ paranoid imagination, to the status of terrifying, over-arching crime-lord. As Meyer’s (perfectly Doyle-like) narrative goes on, Watson brings Holmes to Vienna to meet Sigmund Freud, who cures his addiction; when Watson asks how to broach this delicate subject to his readership, the now-lucid Holmes recommends that he disingenuously present the “Moriarty fantasy” as the truth (for which reason, “Watson” admits, “his” Moriarty characterization and recount of the confrontation were so implausibly sparse). Meyer “amends” Doyle by writing a “Watson” who corrects the “real” Watson—and so, in this superb flight of literary fancy, Moriarty recedes even further into the complex shadows of metafiction.

Does Sherlock Holmes find his meaning in opposition? Is Moriarty his bête noire or just a transparent device to free his creator from a cul-de-sac? Were it not for the extraordinary sophistication of Doyle’s presentational techniques and advanced metafictional apparatus, no such entity, so fleeting and impressionistic that he may barely be called a “character,” could achieve literary immortality. It’s especially interesting that all this sublime trickery arose from the circumstances of Doyle’s artistic fatigue: It was the author’s need to exile his greatest creation from his own thinking that Moriarty really represents—he is Holmes’ “adversary” in an internal struggle for the author’s fidelity. Holmes’ account of how he spent that exile, touring the perimeter of Doyle’s imagination, must be read simply for purposes of savoring the author’s pure joy in the invention of suggestive, intriguing, paper-thin illusion:

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum, the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which I conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier, in the south of France.

It sounds like fun.

*During one of their first conversations in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes disparages Dupin to Watson, not as a rival detective, but as a fictional character in Poe’s novels. Doyle (speaking through Holmes) isn’t attacking Dupin so much as he’s attacking Poe—the other detective isn’t plausible enough to be “real” in Holmes’ world (or, more charitably, the idea of suggesting that two different fictional worlds could be contiguous with each other—today’s “crossover”—simply didn’t occur to Doyle).
†”The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual” (both 1893) are also post facto tales told by Holmes to Watson, but their main action took place years in the past, rather than concurrently with Watson’s involvement as in “The Final Problem.”
‡This wonderful folio-sized omnibus from Crown Publishers, Ltd., containing facsimiles of the original Strand Magazine pages (include all the Sidney Paget illustrations) was my first, beloved introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes.
**Doyle’s challenge in plotting “The Adventure of the Empty House” is comparable to what Paul Sheldon, the writer protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery (1987), must go through in his (more literally fan-enforced) efforts to revive his own popular, reviled protagonist from a similar authorial murder. But, unlike Sheldon, Doyle has the benefit of his own contrivances: untying the knot of Holmes’ death simply reveals how weakly tied that knot was to begin with.
††There is no such thing. Doyle probably meant Bartitsu, an obscure method of combat that, ironically, is best known today in relation to Sherlock Holmes.