Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 'Singular Interview' with Professor Moriarty.

In The Guardian of August 6, 2010, Steven Moffat pays tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's remarkable ability to create villains:

"The genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When it came to villains and mystery and heroes and adventure, there's never been anyone to touch Sir Arthur. Every so often I have to write a "hero meets villain" scene. A suave exchange of verbal blows. Simmering hatred in clipped sentences. Wit and war!

I do it with a heavy heart because I know there's a moment that can't be beat – this simple exchange in The Final Problem, written in 1893.

Moriarty: "Everything I have to say has already crossed your mind."
Holmes: "Then possibly my answer has crossed yours."

Since those words were written, the rest of us have been fighting for second place. And Professor Moriarty – despite his death a mere eight pages later – was launched on a long and terrifying film career."

Professor Moriarty's surprise visit to 221b at the centre of The Final Problem presented in little more than 800 words is a 'singular interview' in more ways than one.

The phrase is pure Holmes - from the typically understated formality of 'interview' to label a perilous meeting of implacable foes to the arm's length subduing of emotion in 'singular', the detective's favoured response to all that excites his attention.

The meeting was intended as unique: the closest the reader would ever come to the shadowy Professor. Watson glimpses Moriarty at a distance on Victoria Station and momentarily 'his black figure outlined against the green' as he hurries from Reichenbach to attend to the fictitious English lady at Meiringen. But as far as Conan Doyle was concerned, committed as he was in 1893 to 'killing' Holmes, Watson would never meet the professor, nor was the reader to 'witness' directly or by report the final encounter at the Falls.

Singularity 1: Moriarty's Visit in Person.

After Holmes's introductory account of the Professor's notorious reticence, much is economically revealed as he chooses to step out from the shadows.

Even though the detective elsewhere teaches preparation for the unexpected, he cannot help but be startled to find Moriarty on his own threshold. In part this is calculated to test the nerve and parallel Holmes's own penetration of his enemy's inner sanctum.

Eric Porter as Moriarty in the Granada series.

Curiosity (though barbed with threatening wit) incites Moriarty's initial comment:  "You have less frontal development than I should have expected". 

Respect too (an aspect I find much muted in the BBC's Jim Moriarty) has moved the spider to leave his web, a respect summed up in the remark: 'It has been an intellectual treat'.

Finally, having been 'inconvenienced...positively hampered' by such 'continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty' , the Professor has seen the need to deliver an ultimatum, bringing the matter to permanent closure. This is patently an act of last resort (Monday looms over all this interview).
Singularity 2: the Absence of Violence.

Whilst both (wisely) are armed, neither takes up a clear opportunity to fight it out there and then. Why they do not is partly answered by Moffat in his phrase "wit and war!". This is a direct response to the language of the story at this point. Thus far it has been a game, a duel (of wits), an intellectual treat. Now that Moriarty is effectively cornered, he offers two options: 'withdraw' or suffer an 'extreme measure'.

by jkwoo1970.

This is precisely the restrained, courteously diplomatic language of gentleman-generals meeting under a flag of parley prior to probable battle. And of course with Holmes narrating there can be no doubt he survives this meeting.

Doyle too (ever chivalrous to his readers as I tried to show in my first post on The Final Problem) has no intention of dramatising the planned deaths which, in the manner of Greek theatre, will occur off-stage far away in another land.

I would just add that Holmes has already defeated his arch-enemy in that Moriarty has been exposed, unsettled and, despite any protestations to the contrary, has now appeared, in person, out of character, fatally weakened. 

Aware that I have already written at great length on this short story, I want just to close this briefer, final post by returning to  the central theme of this and all my posts on the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

Steven Moffat's comments on Doyle's art are to my mind all too rare - I hear of Sherlock everywhere but do not read nearly enough critical comment on the literary qualities of stories that have generated a truly astonishing (nay 'singular') legacy of fandom, fanfic, film and television.

ACD writing at his desk courtesy CorbisImages.

Regular readers of my blog will know that, thus far, I have written at length about the trio of crucially important short stories, SCAND, EMPT & FINA. I intend, in time, to look at others in the Canon, but see these as the most sophisticated and complex short stories for their respective reasons.

All three demonstrate the art of short story writing at its most consummate in their deployment of narrators, manipulation of time, use of surprise and disguise, economy of language and solicitude for the author's readership. 

I have especially been struck by Doyle's subtle use of literary, mythical, historical and social parallels and allusions within the confines of a short story - this technique makes the stories seem longer and richer than their modest length. He demonstrates just how prose may match the compressed intensity of sonnet poetry.

Doyle is also a master of sentence construction. He has learned well from his reading and education for, as Moffat observes with envy, the creator of Sherlock Holmes could ignite a relationship and a lasting legacy with one simple exchange.

That exchange works because it is utterly appropriate to Moriarty and Holmes in encapsulating months of out-thinking and out-witting one another to the point where all is known.

It heralds too a passage of ping-pong stichomythia (common in Shakespearan drama) of poisonous thrust and deft parry, even more accurately described as thesis and antithesis. Doyle's genius lies in his firm appreciation of the cerebral nature of reading imaginative literature- the only place imaginary events and characters exist is in the reader's mind.

 How effective then to cast this hero and this villain as antithetical abstractions: the language is appropriate to their intellectual rivalry, to the process of reader response and ideal 'shorthand' for the confines of short story writing.

 Doyle proceeds to ratchet up the drama of the encounter with a series of Moriarty sentences of classical climax (I refer to the reading of his notebook, detailing Holmes's activities).

In conclusion, if Moffat is right to speak of the genius of Doyle and if I am able through Markings to continue to illustrate his artistic achievement, it is my fervent hope that those with some influence over our national heritage will in time acknowledge the standing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in supporting the campaign to save his former home of Undershaw for the nation.



1. The Undershaw Preservation Trust- click HERE

2. My previous posts on The Final Problem:

     1.'The Letter Edged in Black' click HERE
    2. 'Some Deep Organising Power' click HERE
    3. 'The Seventh Napoleon' click HERE




  1. Professor Moriarty is my favourite villian, followed by Culverton Smith :) Eric Porter protrayed him brilliantly and certaintly bounced off the masterful performance of Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

    I really enjoyed your article. Very articulate and well thought out. Bravo!

  2. i agree with you on Eric Porter's Professor. I wonder wistfully when I watch Olivier's what he might have made of Moriarty in a "straight" version (given his "Marathon Man" performance!).
    I might add that ANY film or stage Moriarty appearance will be VISIBLE by definition:hence never quite the cerebral, hidden malignity Doyle offers the imagination.
    I do thank you sincerely for your comments.