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



Monday, August 13, 2012

The Seventh Napoleon - Moulding Moriarty.

"Gentlemen," he cried, "let me introduce you to the famous black pearl of the Borgias!"

(Holmes -The Six Napoleons).

This is the third of four posts discussing aspects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story The Final Problem. Click the titles to link to previous posts.

Post 1:- THE LETTER EDGED IN BLACK  (Doyle & his Public).
Post 2:- SOME DEEP ORGANISING POWER (Moriarty & Doyle's Imagination).

The Seventh Napoleon - Moulding Moriarty.

Smashing the sixth bust, purchased from Mr. Sandeford, 'with a loud shout of triumph, (Holmes) held up one splinter, in which a round, dark object was fixed like a plum in a pudding'. (SIXT).

In the 'pudding' that is The Final Problem Conan Doyle's  'plum' is Professor Moriarty.

This post is a commentary on the language and techniques through which Doyle conjures the presence of Moriarty and because his Victorian readership was as ignorant of the Professor's existence as are Watson and Lestrade of the Borgia Pearl, what follows is best read by setting aside all you, dear reader, know about Moriarty.

(N.B. Please follow a copy of the text. My comments refer constantly to its language and structure. A convenient online FINA will open in a new window by clicking HERE. )

Two passing, but clearly significant allusions are made to Moriarty in Watson's opening paragraph which are left hanging in the air as the good Doctor launches the narrative proper.

In 1893, two years after 'that event which has created a void in my life', letters have appeared in the press in which a certain 'Colonel James Moriarty' defends 'the memory of' his nameless brother. Watson considers these a public 'perversion' of the original facts, hitherto but sparsely reported in 1891. He has reluctantly taken up his pen to correct the record and this initial statement of intent closes with the first direct Canonical mention of Professor Moriarty.

There is already much here to occupy the Sherlockian who would debate reasons for James Moriarty's two-year silence, the paucity of newspaper reports (given Holmes's fame), the supposed contents of the Colonel's letters and the nature of that brotherly relationship. These do not concern me here. I am commenting on the unfolding of an imaginative narrative as experienced by Doyle's readers. Thus caught up and carried along such speculations do not naturally occur in media res.

At the opening of any story the reader is simply wondering Who? What? Where? When? And what Conan Doyle does here is to drip-feed the reader with morsels of information that arouse curiosity and shape response.

Denied for the moment any expansive detail we pick up on subtler hints ( as the writer fully intends). So, there is a strong sense of distance in time and place. Whatever the event, it happened years before and ("The past is another country" as L.P. Hartley opened 'The Go-Between') seemingly abroad, given the Geneva and Reuters communiques.

And, once upon a time, in another country, something momentous occurred involving 'Professor Moriarty and Mr. Sherlock Holmes'.

Professor distinguishes this Moriarty from the Colonel but more importantly imparts to the pairing of these two names an equality, a fatal twinning, a balance that Shakespeare deploys with Romeo and Juliet and (with more disquieting analogy) Robert Louis Stevenson in  'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'.

With no experience or knowledge of Professor Moriarty, we note the new, strange name (never before encountered in the stories) and the one sure deduction - that a professor is always intellectual. Sherlock Holmes's powers (with which we are so familiar) readily bleed across to colour the empty silhouette of this apparent equal and the significant placing of their yoked names as the last words of Watson's prologue engender a sense of some legend in the making.

What follows is a transitional paragraph that rewinds with growing immediacy to 1891. The shift is from heavy-hearted meditation, transmuting through dynamic narrative to full recreation of the past in direct speech.
Before re-calling the moment Holmes walked into his consulting room on the 24th of April, Watson reinforces the sense of distance already established. The Morstan marriage and Holmes's absences abroad have distanced the friends. As Watson represents the reader in these stories, we too are thus estranged from the detective and share the doctor's pleasure when Holmes appears out of the blue.

But this is a paler, thinner, fearful and haunted Holmes in imminent mortal danger, bleeding from recent violent attack. The homely security of London and 221b count for nothing in the face of palpable peril. All must be abandoned and refuge sought precipitously elsewhere. 

Holmes's understatement ( 'I have been a little pressed of late') and his courteous plea ( 'Might I trouble you for a light?') emphasise the enormity of a crisis as yet undescribed. There is ominous substance in the vagueness of 'You are afraid of something'  and 'It's not an airy nothing'.
Roman Mosaic at Conimbriga, Portugal.


Suspense and surprises sprung upon Watson and the reader have animated these introductory paragraphs so irresistibly that, as Holmes now effectively speaks (posthumously) as narrator, attention is commanded just as it was in life. What ensues reads like some legendary exploration and momentous revelation of the Unknown, moulded in three classical movements: a sketchy, incomplete history of the shadowy Professor; the detective's unique knowledge of 'an antagonist who was my intellectual equal', tracked right to his hidden lair; and the equally unique, surprise confrontation of two Titans in Holmes's own inner sanctum on Baker Street.

At the outset Watson is ignorant even of the labyrinth: 'You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty'. The abstract nouns 'genius' and 'wonder' launch the biographical sketch. 'Pinnacle' and 'summit' pre-figure both professional rivalry and the Alpine scenario to come. And the reader is as curious as Watson to understand why this anonymous man cannot be left 'walking the streets of London unchallenged'. 

As if reading from his 'M' Index, Holmes couches the potted biography in academic language, suppressing subjectivity, despite his harried condition. The facts establish Moriarty's intellectual stature and the detective's achievement in viewing the current crisis as a purely professional matter.

'So much is known to the world...' This closing, Miltonic topic sentence reaches forward to the disclosure of much more to which only the detective is privy. The language now is of undiscovered crime, unseen power, shielded and shrouded maleficence. And, as Holmes warms to his narrative task, he finds natural resort in the classical parallel of the Minotaur myth. Like Theseus (except that the detective is his own Ariadne), Sherlock Holmes has 'seized' his 'thread and followed it till it led' him, 'after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity'. 
Theseus and  the Minotaur,

The vocabulary here mirrors the labyrinth in its multi-syllables ('mathematical' and puns ( 'ex' is also Mr. X and 'celebrity' echoes cerebral. ) Allusion to the personified mutation that is The Minotaur relates readily to Moriarty's mutational 'hereditary tendencies'.

But Doyle needs a human parallel to prepare for Moriarty in the flesh

3. The Seventh Napoleon.

In 1887 The Globe published 'How I Write My Books' by Wilkie Collins, in which he describes how Anne Catherick 'offered' herself as a character for 'The Woman In White':

  "I devote the evening to a new effort — and fail. Experience tells me to take no more trouble about it, and leave that other woman to come of her own accord. The next morning, before I have been awake in my bed for more than ten minutes, my perverse brains set to work without consulting me. Poor Anne Catherick comes into the room, and says: "Try me"."

Doyle requires a very human legend, universally known: one respected even if hated; one renowned for his organisational genius. 'The Napoleon of Crime' was for this story and from Doyle's own point of view the perfect analogy. Listen to the author addressing Robert Barr in the McClure's Magazine interview of November, 1894:

" He was a wonderful man - perhaps the most wonderful man who ever lived. What strikes me is the lack of finality in his character. When you make up your mind he is a complete villain, you come on some noble trait, and then your admiration of this is lost in some act of incredible meanness...The secret of his success seems to me to have been his ability to originate gigantic schemes that seemed fantastic and impossible, while his mastery of detail enabled him to bring his projects to completion where any other man would have failed."

 Now Holmes has tracked, located and identified 'the spider' sat 'motionless in the centre of its web'.  Elsewhere, Moriarty is 'reptilian' : but, above all, he is human...because Holmes is and they are both to die.

We come to the climax of this post, the centre of the story and its web. Doyle's deep organising power and rich allusiveness of vocabulary,  are nowhere more apparent than in the paragraph at the apex of Holmes's second movement of narrative. I quote it now with key features highlighted.

"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. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed--the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught--never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up."
In red, the arch criminal is bodied forth. The blue denotes  sentence constructions with Miltonic echoes of Paradise Lost...Lucifer lurks nearby. And several sentences display a see-saw-like pivoting balance; another builds to climax in heroic crescendo.
Doyle is preparing the reader for the only time (other than at the death) these sworn enemies will meet. That encounter I shall examine in my next post. (click this link to POST 4 ) 
It will above all be an encounter of two uniquely talented and equal human characters, who, thanks to Doyle's consummate preparation, will meet trailing clouds of legend from their Victorian coat-tails.