Kim Newman: Moriarty & Me
Posted on Thursday December 15, 2011, 12:06 by Kim Newman in Empire States
One of the perils of writing novels in which you borrow – all right, steal – other people’s characters or premises or worlds is that if the original material is ‘open source’, as it were, you won’t be the only person doing it. Indeed, the popular kids in this playground tends to be mobbed. To qualify, they have to be out of copyright and loosed from the clutches of the estates of the original creators or else we get into the perilous terrain of ‘licensed’ work, which means being required to leave the property the way you found it.
For Empire readers who don’t know that besides writing the dungeon column and reviewing film, I’m also a novelist. My relevant crimes against literature include Anno Dracula and sequels (The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha and Johnny Alucard – all forthcoming from Titan Books). Besides a raft of folk created by Bram Stoker, Anno Dracula features famous Victorians from history (the Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde) and fiction (Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau) in an alternate 1888 where vampires are a prominent minority group. Yes, the business of collecting together characters from books by various authors is like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – though the comic (and, ugh, the film) came out after Anno Dracula. I understand LXG was percolating in Alan Moore’s brain even as I spent years getting round to writing up my ‘Dracula wins’ idea: any similarities are down to a) once you start thinking along these lines, you get to the same places and b) both of us looting ideas from Philip José Farmer (whose biography of Tarzan is a key book in this area). Professor Moriarty is in Anno Dracula and LXG, for instance – while Farmer advances the theory that he was also Captain Nemo. So, the Napoleon of Crime has been on my mind for a while.
My latest book is Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the d’Urbervilles, which leaves out the fantasy but also does that thing of taking a minor character from someone else’s book and reimagining a famous story (in my case, famous stories) from their point of view. Again, I’m following others. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the backstory of Mrs Rochester, and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, about Dr Jekyll’s maid (which became a film I still think is underrated) are favourites, though the big beast I had to tread around this time was George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman books (about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays) offer a roguish, military, trouble-prone narrator whose shadow inevitably falls over the character I picked to write about. When I decided I wanted to do a Moriarty book – it started as a series of short stories (here’s the first) – the thing I needed was a narrator who could recount the criminal’s exploits the way Dr Watson does Sherlock Holmes’s cases. Arthur Conan Doyle had usefully provided his villain with a number two man, Colonel Sebastian Moran: big game hunter, war hero, card cheat and murderer.
So, I’ve spent a couple of years trying to think like Moran and to come to grips with the unknowable Moriarty. I tried not to contradict anything Doyle said about them (he gives a lot of specifics, but leaves gaps which are helpful to other authors taking up the game) and I wanted them to remain villainous even when there might be some flickers of sympathy for them. Then, someone makes a big movie in which the same characters appear and I have to let them go again – after all, they weren’t exactly mine to begin with. This has happened to me before: Anno Dracula appeared just before Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula movie … only Richard E. Grant’s Dr Seward really meshed with my take on Stoker. Dracula Cha Cha Cha (set in Italy in 1959) features someone I thought was an obscure character from a series of cult novels who proceded to feature in a major movie, The Talented Mr Ripley. I’ve never warmed to Anthony Minghella’s Ripley movie, despite its many good qualities, because I find Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley so much less interesting than Patricia Highsmith’s: the humane director and actor just can’t imagine a true sociopath. I think the best screen Ripley is still Alain Delon, though Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich are good too.
**Contains spoilers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows from here on in. Seriously, we're not kidding**
When I wrote my book, I had a lot of Moriarty performances floating about in my mind: Eric Porter, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Henry Daniell, Leo McKern, John Huston, Paul Freeman, Anthony Higgins, Viktor Yevgrafov (in the wonderful Soviet era Russian Holmes TV series), Gustav von Seyffertitz - though I repressed any memory of Richard Roxburgh. Moran, my main character, was a relative media blank: only Patrick Allen (in the Jeremy Brett TV series) really registers, though Holmes movie buffs might remember Alan Mowbray in Terror By Night, Wilfrid Caithness in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Goullet in Silver Blaze (aka Murder at the Baskervilles). In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jared Harris honourably joins the ranks of mad maths professors as Moriarty (his whispery dialogue delivery is almost the best thing in the film, and his use of Schubert lieder during torture is an inspired touch) while Paul Anderson (who had the Gary Oldman role in the remake of The Firm) gets more or less a clear run at Sebastian Moran. A Game of Shadows stresses his prowess as a sniper rather than his slightly more fumbled attempts at the card table (he wouldn’t have had to shoot that Australian in ‘The Empty House’ if he’d been a better cheat).
Anderson’s Moran is a coolly humourless henchperson, rather than (as I saw him) a Watsonian partner for the Napoleon of Crime but it’s good to see him up there, and given at least a crime (an assassination disguised by an anarchist outrage) worthy of a Moriarty coup. From experience, I can say it’s difficult to think these up: Doyle ducks the issue of what his villain actually does that’s so special. In Doyle’s ‘The Final Problem’, the Professor is just quietly running his criminal empire – and holding down a humble teaching position – when Holmes takes it into his head to thwart him, and the great antagonists both take a holiday in Switzerland so there can be a picturesque spot for their final confrontation. Other writers (especially screenwriters) have had to stretch themselves to conceive of perfidy worthy of his evil genius reputation: the 1939 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has a good wheeze as Zucco’s Moriarty is out to steal the crown jewels, and distracts his arch-nemesis by dangling a case full of juicy clues in front of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes which sends the detective haring off after a limping killer gaucho. A Game of Shadows gives Moriarty the sort of big-scale start-a-war-and-take-over scheme made familiar by Bond villains; and, let’s face it, LeChiffre, Goldfinger, Blofeld and company are all updates of Moriarty or Fu Manchu. Harris’s ultimate plan is not dissimilar to the corner-the-market-in-superweapons scam Roxburgh’s Moriarty pulled in LXG, though I’d expect that was an association Ritchie would rather not have made.
Doyle created Moriarty to kill off Holmes, to free him for ‘better things’ (a run of really rather good historical novels no one much reads any more). He was eventually persuaded to bring his great detective back (in fact, he created Moran to explain why he’d kept quiet about not being dead) and even used Moriarty once more, albeit offstage, in The Valley of Fear. Doyle liked to tell the tale of a humble reader who observed that while Holmes might not have been killed at that waterfall, he was never quite the man he was before. It should be noted, that the book everyone says is the detective’s finest hour came after ‘The Final Problem’ and was originally published as a posthumous remembrance while Holmes was supposed to be dead.
Ungrateful fans, who’d worn black armbands after ‘The Final Problem’ (Holmes Dead!) came out, greeted The Hound of the Baskervilles by clogging the Edwardian equivalent of internet message boards with whines that it might be the best Holmes book yet but still wasn’t what they wanted. A cheque-brandishing publisher had to persuade the author to give in and write ‘The Empty House’ (Holmes Alive After All!).
What Doyle never did – despite The Valley of Fear – was properly bring back Moriarty, which might be why Holmes wasn’t the same man. He even laments at one point that London is dull without Moriarty and more than once complains that some new nemesis isn’t in the late Professor’s league. In retrospect, we assume Moriarty was behind many of the crimes Holmes came across earlier in his career: Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffat-Mark Gatiss (in the BBC's Sherlock) both play this up, with the mastermind shown (as Blofeld was in the early Bond films) sending other baddies into the fray against Holmes while staying in his lair and plotting (the Jeremy Brett TV series also did this, and Young Sherlock Holmes reveals after its end credits that it was also about Young Professor Moriarty).
It may be that Holmes needs Moriarty the way he needs Watson – Moriarty is his equal in every way, save that he doesn’t have the ‘weakness’ of a single human tie to a normal person – and Holmes films without Moriarty need something really big (eg: a Jack the Ripper conspiracy in Murder By Decree) to engage the hero’s full capabilities. If Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law come back for a third go-round – which seems likely – it might be as well to dredge the pond beneath the waterfall so that this Holmes is the same man again; though, for my part, I’m leaving my Moriarty where Doyle left him.
Which isn’t to say that any of us are finished with Sebastian Moran.