The Game is Afoot: Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and Beyond

By Anna Michnowicz
Edited by Hallie Gordon/Director of Artistic Development, KCRep

The character Professor James Moriarty makes his first appearance in the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Final Problem” in 1893. In his introduction, Moriarty is no more than a name, designed as a narrative device to kill Sherlock Holmes. After “The Final Problem,” Moriarty is mentioned sporadically in Holmes’ stories, a shadowy figure without so much as a first name (his name is later revealed to be James, previously assigned to his brother.) Moriarty’s ability to mastermind crimes without getting his hands dirty has earned his character the nickname “the Napoleon of crime,” a phrase that was stolen from the mouth of a Scotland Yard inspector to describe his real-life counterpart Adam Worth.

Like the character of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reportedly based Moriarty on two men: Adam Worth, a German-American criminal, and Simon Newcomb, a Canadian-American astronomer.

Worth began his career as a bounty jumper during the Civil War before progressing to pickpocketing and eventually organizing his robberies. After escaping a three-year sentence in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, he expanded his theft empire and fled to Europe. Worth joined high society alongside his brother, John, and formed a crime network. Worth joined high society and targeted higher value items such as paintings and diamonds before being captured by the Belgian police.

Simon Newcomb was never a criminal but a multitalented genius and mathematical mastermind. He had risen to international fame years before Doyle began writing Sherlock Holmes stories and earned a reputation for attempting to destroy the careers of his rival scientists.

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, Moriarty acts as a Victorian mafia leader. He is described as a spider sitting at the center of a web, manipulating anyone around him that he can access. Sherlock mentions in “The Final Problem” that Moriarty had a promising career in the mathematical field, but something in his upbringing was “diabolical” and that pull led him astray. Holmes remarks, “[T]he 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.”

Although Moriarty has only appeared twice in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, he is cemented in pop culture as Sherlock’s archnemesis and intellectual equal. Doctor Watson, who serves as the narrator for the Sherlock Holmes tales, never meets Moriarty for himself and relies on Holmes to provide details of their legendary rivalry, further adding to Moriarty’s shadowy perception.

Moriarty and Holmes perfectly embody the Mirror Character Archetype. Unlike Foil characters, which highlight differences, Mirror Characters share strong similarities. Holmes and Moriarty share the same interests in puzzles, detective skill sets, and even some personality traits (egotistical, private, single-minded). These similarities are significant because they are present in these characters regardless of their environment, implying a sort of inevitability that their paths will cross no matter how differently Holmes and Moriarty were raised.

Holmes and Moriarty share the ability to see humans as predictable, read the puzzles within behaviors, and their passions for solving complex mysteries without glaring clues. However, for all their similarities, their differences reside within their methods of execution. Moriarty is bent on maintaining the upper hand and gaining fortune from others’ misfortunes and will hire as many people to perform his dark purposes as he can rather than get his own hands dirty. Moriarty’s delight in torturing others, both emotionally and physically, is incorporated in his quest to come out a “winner.” On the other hand, Holmes enjoys being a “winner” but is more interested in being seen as a hero, someone celebrated for their accomplishments rather than feared. Both motivations are arguably spurred by ego, but where Holmes has never intended to cause pain or harm, Moriarty revels in thinking of others as “losing.” He offers “creative solutions” to the desperate to make himself feel better with the knowledge others are at his mercy. They are also at odds with methods of presentation. Moriarty prefers to operate in shadows due to the violent nature of his crimes, whereas Holmes playing the hero requires a certain level of notoriety and public presence.

One of the reasons fans are so drawn to these characters goes beyond the typical good vs. evil debate present in most pop culture. Instead, audiences can relate to Holmes’ eccentricity and feeling like an outsider, wanting to become a hero to prove themselves worthy of social acceptance. Additionally, in most Sherlock Holmes stories, the villain is easily outwitted by Sherlock’s superior skill with deduction. Moriarty presents a true challenge as Sherlock’s only intellectual equal, making him more compelling as someone who can “match” Sherlock’s extraordinary skill set. Although audiences want to root for Sherlock to win, the building of tension is lost if victory is won too easily.

Moriarty’s creation as a character was to serve as Sherlock’s ultimate undoing, and instead, he has quickly risen as a stand-in for unknowable evil that lurks in everyday life. His terrifying presence and methods of operation generate fear because they never know what to expect from someone so ruthless and unpredictable — at least, unpredictable to anyone but Sherlock Holmes.

Ultimately, it’s easy to see why aspects of Moriarty are reflected in villains of pop culture today. Characters such as Kingpin in Marvel’s Daredevil, Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, The Riddler in Batman, Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, and many others all exhibit similar traits of operating in shadows and manipulating others as a means to achieve their goals. Although their methods might be different, the same dedication to remaining on top of an endless metaphorical food chain begs the need for a Holmes-like heroine to challenge them once and for all.

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