Sherlock Holmes, the Master of Disguise
I recently finished reading Moriarty, Anthony Horowitz’s excellent follow-up to his equally engaging Holmes novel of a couple of years ago, The House of Silk. It’s well worth a read if you get the chance, not only for Holmes fans (and I’d argue that Horowitz’s plotting is every bit a match for Doyle’s over a full novel), but for casual crime fiction fans. Anyway, without giving too much away, the novel poses many intriguing questions concerning identity.As with all crime fiction, hidden and secret identities are of course pivotal to the original Sherlock Holmes stories. There would, after all, be no mysteries to solve if people did not attempt to hide their true characters and motives. But the question of identity goes further in the canon—Doyle’s stories may be regarded as an epic cycle explicating the identity of Holmes himself, along with that of Watson, the man who completes him, as it were.It is a notable feature and a great curiosity that the next-most famous character in the canon, Moriarty, is hardly given space by Doyle. He does not, for instance, appear in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most famous Holmes story of all; those in which he does appear (The Final Problem and The Valley of Fear, along with mentions in a mere five more) rarely make it on to aficionados’ “Top Tens.”Moriarty is to all intents and purposes a spectral figure. In appearance he is described as tall and thin, with a pale, domed forehead, sunken gray eyes, and a “face [that] protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.” Like Holmes, he is a solitary character, apparently unable to give his heart to another but with an innate empathy for what drives others’ passions. So what is it that makes Moriarty so compelling?Somehow this unearthly figure casts a shadow over the whole of Holmes’s world. He pervades London, everywhere but untouchable, much like the pea-souper fogs that entwined themselves around the city. He is the mastermind behind “half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city” and “the organiser of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld.” And yet, Holmes cannot help but admit a grudging respect for his great nemesis. He calls him variously a genius and a philosopher and, most strikingly of all, his “intellectual equal.”Moriarty is so vital and so alluring, I suspect, because deep down we know that he is nothing less than the alter ego of Holmes. He was the man that Holmes might have been if he had turned to criminality. And that was a prospect perhaps more possible than many readers give credit for. Holmes repeatedly displays a cavalier disregard for the law, from proving himself a skilled housebreaker to bypassing the official legal channels in order to dispense natural justice. Watson could see the thin line his companion trod, commenting in The Sign of Four “… I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defence.“
For Holmes, bringing down Moriarty and his pernicious crime web was the Holy Grail. As Watson says in The Final Problem, “… if [Holmes] could be assured that society was freed from Professor Moriarty he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.” It was as if Holmes were exorcising himself. Yet even after Holmes ostensibly bested the ”Napoleon of crime” at the Reichenbach Falls, Moriarty exercised a hold over him. ”I am not a fanciful person,“ said Holmes, “but I give you my word that I seemed to hear Moriarty’s voice screaming at me out of the abyss.“ It was, perhaps, the sound of his own demons that he was hearing. If Holmes is Dorian Gray, Moriarty equates to the picture he hides away in his attic—a grim reflection of the ravages of his soul that the detective keeps hidden from the world at large.
If that were not enough, Moriarty’s chief henchman—the dastardly Colonel Sebastian Moran—is the distorted reflection of Doctor Watson. Both men were well bred and educated, earning reputations for bravery with the army in Afghanistan. Both were then forced out of military service in mysterious circumstances, prompting their returns to London. Back in England, the similarities continue, with each displaying a serious penchant for gambling, a habit that cost them dearly in different ways. Thankfully, the introduction of Holmes put Watson back on the right path (Holmes, let it be remembered, kept Watson’s checkbook locked in his desk drawer for the doctor’s own protection) while Moran tied his colors to Moriarty’s mast. Moran can thus be viewed as the figure Watson might have become if Stamford had introduced him to Moriarty rather than Holmes.
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Doyle, then, created a classic saga of good and evil in which Holmes/Watson and Moriarty/ Moran are not only archenemies but, in fact, ciphers for the light and dark that existed in each of them individually—and, perhaps, within each of us, too.