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The Return of Moriarty

Sherlock's biggest nemesis is always lurking around a corner...

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

One element of the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle was his ability to create and maintain a reasonable level of credibility in the stories he wrote about Sherlock Holmes.  

I refer to Doyle as the author of the stories merely in keeping with the common misconception of their authorship. Of course, Dr. Watson actually wrote the majority of tales, as all true Holmes aficionados know. Any moderately bright six-year-old child can attest to this truth by pointing to the first page of the first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which it is clearly stated, right there in black and white, that the publication is a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department. Rather than restate the obvious and dredge out the abundant evidence in support of Watson’s position as the true biographer of Holmes’ affairs, already recorded and proven on innumerable occasions elsewhere, I’ll merely allow Doyle the position of author in order to stay on subject. 

In that spirit, I will also permit the acceptance of the preposterous notion that the stories, and the characters that inhabit them, are fictional. It is entirely likely that Watson—I mean, Doyle—embellished some tales, added characters to move the plot along, and invented dialogue to add color. With numerous full-length biographies having been written about Holmes, and with George Bernard Shaw’s accurate statement that Holmes was one of the three most famous people who ever lived, along with Jesus Christ and Muhammad, the notion of him being no more than the figment of a mere mortal’s imagination is hardly worth arguing.

Related: David Stuart Davies: My Life with Sherlock 

The 56 short stories and four novels that comprise the entire Holmes canon (not including the thousands of parodies and pastiches written by others) seem so believable because Doyle did not use hyperbole or exaggeration to describe either Holmes or his adversaries. While Holmes’ ability to bend a poker with his bare hands is impressive, it is not Herculean, and his deductive powers, although jaw-dropping at first glance, are easily explained, as he himself does on numerous occasions to the delight and amazement of his amanuensis and friend, Watson—as well as to readers.

Arguably the greatest suspense novel of the 20th century is Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. In it, he introduces perhaps the most memorable fictional villain of the century, Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal (chillingly referred to as the cannibal) is so evil, so utterly malignant, that he cannot be called a sociopath or a psychopath. As the FBI agent Clarissa Starling says, “There is no word to describe what he is.” Lecter is not the primary character in Red Dragon and he is on stage only briefly, but the scenes in which he appears resonate for years after encountering them. In the next novel by Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter shows up again, in a somewhat enhanced role, in another masterpiece of terror.

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  • Arthur Conan DoylePhoto Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, instead of offering that blazing nightmare in small doses, Harris overreached in his third book, Hannibal, making the scholarly gentleman and gourmet the center of attention, allowing him to indulge in scenes of such pornographic violence that he became far less believable and frightening—much as the rubber shark in Jaws became less terrifying as it received more and more time on the screen. Hannibal was reduced to a parody of himself, a cartoon creature of no literary worth whatsoever. 

Doyle must somehow have understood the value of restraint: Moriarty appears in only two cases and is mentioned in a third. The greatest, most inspired and memorable characters in the canon, aside from Holmes and Watson, are Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Mycroft, too, appears in only two cases, leaving Sherlockians everywhere frustrated that there are no further chronicles of Sherlock’s older, smarter brother.

Moriarty, previously unmentioned in the 23 stories and two novels in which Holmes and Watson battled criminals of all kinds, makes his debut in “The Final Problem,” in which he is described as the arch-villain behind “half that is evil and … nearly all that is undetected” in London.

Related: 10 Books for Sherlock Holmes Fans 

“He sits motionless,” Doyle writes, “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.”

Moriarty is a professor of mathematics who, at the age of 21, “wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem which has had a European vogue,” Holmes tells Watson, referring to a significant algebraic principle. He also produced a more ominous volume, The Dynamics of an Asteroid, which may be an arcane, challenging study of atomic energy or, possibly, space travel.

Curiously, it seems that the diabolical professor has a brother with the same first name—James—who is a station-master in the west of England.

“The Final Problem” was published in December 1893. Knowing that Holmes is the only serious adversary he has in London or, indeed, anywhere in the world, Moriarty has tracked the detective to his rooms at 221B Baker Street with the intention of killing him. Holmes flees with Moriarty in pursuit and they finally meet in Switzerland at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, where these two titans of intellect engage in a physical tussle that apparently sends them both over the edge to their doom.

It has been reported, perhaps accurately, that young men in England wore black armbands during the winter in mourning for the fallen hero. As Doyle later stated, “If I had killed a real man I could not have received more vituperative letters than those which poured in upon me.” Doyle’s plan was to be rid of Holmes so that he could devote himself to writing books and stories that he regarded as more worthwhile. 

Related: The 8 Best Sherlock Episodes to Jump-Start Your Obsession 

Bowing to relentless public pressure, Holmes returned in 1901 in the first magazine installment of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an event of such magnitude  that people lined up at newspaper kiosks awaiting each monthly continuation of the novel. Hanging on to his resistance to continuing the Holmes saga, Doyle set the time of The Hound prior to when Holmes plunged over the precipice and into the falls. It was no use. The fall of 1903 (September in America, October in England) saw the publication of “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes explained to Watson that, although Moriarty did plunge to his death, Holmes was fortunate enough to land on a ledge a few feet from the top, uninjured. However, knowing that Moriarty’s henchmen were seeking him, he fled the country under the name Sigerson, visiting the “head” Lama in Tibet, among other adventures.

Moriarty is not heard from again until The Valley of Fear in 1914, where he is successful both in perpetrating a crime and eluding capture. In the ensuing chronicles, neither Holmes nor Watson ever refers to him again.

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  • Drawing by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Moriarty struggling at the Reichenbach FallsPhoto Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A fortuitous coincidence brought the diabolical professor to the attention of one of the 20th century’s greatest thriller writers, John Gardner. As he explains in his prefatory remarks, he was presented with a collection of journals that, by all appearance, were written in code by Moriarty himself. Once deciphered, these diaries served as the factual basis for a series of adventures that Gardner felt were more effective as novels rather than as simply transcribed journals.

When the first of the Moriarty novels was published by Gardner in 1974, his reputation rested mainly on a series of very successful books he had written about a spy named Boysie Oakes, a bumbler and coward who wanted no part of the nastiness of his profession. The first of these humorous exploits, the ironically titled The Liquidator, was published in 1964 and filmed the following year with Rod Taylor as Oates, Trevor Howard, the Intelligence Chief, as his boss, and Jill St. John as the chief’s secretary. An obvious spoof of the James Bond novels and films, Oates lives a grand lifestyle with the code name “L” and the job of being licensed to kill enemies of Great Britain. In order to keep his position, he hires a professional assassin to carry out his assignments. The series ran for six additional novels.

Related: The 10 Best Sherlock Holmes Portrayals on Film and TV—Ranked  

It was with the creation of “Big Herbie” Kruger, however, that Gardner’s great power as a novelist came to the forefront. The initial trilogy featuring the senior staffer in British Intelligence, The Nostradamus Traitor (1979), The Garden of Weapons (1980), and The Quiet Dogs (1982), ranks with John le Carre’s Karla novels as the greatest espionage trilogy of all time. I often have been quoted that the under-appreciated middle volume, The Garden of Weapons, is one of the half-dozen greatest spy novels ever written. The author liked to refer to the third book, The Quiet Dogs, as “Hush Puppies.” 


Kruger also plays a major role in two books in Gardner’s “Secret” trilogy, the saga of one family’s involvement in British Intelligence from its founding in 1910 to the present time, as well as in the mammoth 1993 novel, Maestro, which chronicles the espionage history of the titular figure from the time of the Nazis through the Cold War.

Mainly famous as a writer of espionage fiction, the Moriarty character held a special place in Gardner’s heart. It was conceived as a trilogy, but only The Return of Moriarty in 1974 and The Revenge of Moriarty in 1975 were published when a dispute with his publisher led him to drop the idea of writing the third book.

Related: Jeremy Brett: The Real Sherlock Holmes 

As both a publisher and a friend of the author, I tried for many years to convince him that the third volume would be welcome, both by me and by Sherlock Holmes aficionados around the world, as the first two books were generally lauded as the best pastiches of their kind in the long history of Sherlockian literature. It was not to be until, finally, in 2006, after three decades of my cajoling, arguing, and attempted bribery, he agreed to write the third book. This adventure, titled simply Moriarty, was not, however, the planned finale to the trilogy. That book was to have been titled The Revolt of Moriarty, with Moriarty joining forces with Trotsky as they fomented revolution in Russia. It was the book he planned to write next when he died of a sudden heart attack in 2007. He did not live to see Moriarty published a few months later.

It seems that Moriarty cannot be killed, any more than Holmes could. New works by Anthony Horowitz, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others continue the nefarious saga.

Otto Penzler is the founder of the Mysterious Press (1975), a distinguished publisher of literary crime fiction whose imprint is now associated with Grove/Atlantic, Mysterious Press.com (2011), an electronic-book publishing company associated with Open Road Integrated Media, and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (1979). He has won two Edgars, for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1977) and The Lineup (2010). He has edited more than 50 anthologies and written extensively about mystery fiction.

Featured photo of Holmes and Moriarty: Alchetron