Whilst most people find intrigue in the heroes of a story, I find that the villains offer more food for thought. Why do they do what they do and What motivates them? The art of villainy is a subject that can be defined by arguably one of the best villains of all time, Professor James Moriarty. At first glance, he is an intellectual, a professor of mathematics at a small university. It is only as The Tale of Sherlock Holmes progresses that we derive who Moriarty is and his true intentions.
“He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumors gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London. 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…”—Holmes, “The Final Problem”
Across all adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty has remained the most dangerous of villains, not because of his disregard for laws and the well being of others, but because he is smart. Often referred to as the intellectual equal of Holmes and considered to be his Arch-Nemesis, Moriarty’s methods lay not through direct action but by the manipulation of others thus creating a cloud of anonymity that is presented through many of the stories leading up to ‘The Adventure of the Final problem’ and ‘The Valley of Fear,’ this ability to play people from the shadows is what makes Moriarty intriguing to me, “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!” This disconnection from the ‘front lines’ grants him an air of deniablity that would have remained impervious, were it not for the interference of Holmes. He often viewed his strategies as a game of chess, a sentiment that is shared by Sherlock in ‘A Game of Shadows’ when they finally engage in a game of blitz chess as Moriarty’s final strategy unfolds, only to finish in both of them plummeting off of a waterfall, as Conan Doyle had originally wrote it.
Modern adaptations of Moriarty have presented us with two distinct motives for why he does what he does. In Guy Ritche’s adaptation, Moriarty is presented as a corporate villain, as the world is on the verge of war Moriarty aimed to ‘Own the bullets and bandages,’ profiting from the chaos that ensues. Whilst in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s interpretation, Moriarty was portrayed more akin to the original Conan Doyle version, in the sense that he was a criminal mastermind who had stakes in every criminal organization in London, The ‘consulting criminal’ as apposed to Sherlock’s title of ‘consulting detective.’ Although his motives may differ, the man himself remains somewhat unchanged, he is cunning and methodical and deserving of the title of Sherlock’s nemesis.
I have to admit, the Moriarty portrayed in the Gatiss-Moffat series is somewhat peculiar, in the fact that he comes off as a bit unstable mentally. Whilst other adaptations have shown him as cool and calculating, the ‘Sherlock’ Moriarty is far more volatile, with a personality that could be perceived as unstable. Yes he still has the mental capabilities of a master criminal but the way he acts would mislead you into thinking he was just psychotic. Whilst it is an interesting take on the character, I much prefer the classic portrayal of Moriarty. That air of class and confidence he brings with him just makes him so much more menacing. ‘By meddling in his plans you risk inevitable destruction’ only a character like the classic Moriarty can pull a threat like that off and make it work.
James ‘Sketch’ Wood