Anyone with even a passing interest in the world of Sherlock Holmes should be familiar with Professor James Moriarty, the detective’s arch-nemesis described as “the Napoleon of crime”. A new podcast inverts this image by portraying Moriarty as an innocent man out to clear his name.
Created by Charles Kindinger, Moriarty: The Devil’s Game can more accurately be described as a radio play. Largely set in Victorian London, it features several characters from Conan Doyle’s stories: Holmes and Watson; Lestrade and Gregson; Sebastian Moran and the Baker Street Irregulars, among others.
It’s entertaining and often gripping, though at least one main plot twist can be spotted a long way off. Kindinger knows his Sherlockiana, for there are clever re-imaginings of minor characters such as Fred Porlock and John Clay, as well as an inevitable recasting of the rendezvous at the Reichenbach Falls.
Here, Moriarty is a wronged hero and Holmes the monster out to destroy him. Others have toyed with kindred premises. In Moriarty the Patriot, a Japanese manga/anime series, the professor and his brothers set out to upend a class system imposed by the British Empire. In Michael Kurland’s Professor Moriarty novels, he is a “consulting criminal”, not the mastermind of Holmes’ conception.
A monstrous Holmes also features in Michael Dibdin’s chilling The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. Another audacious work, Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, reveals Moriarty to be little more than a figment of Holmes’s imagination arising from troubling childhood memories – a diagnosis made by Sigmund Freud, no less.
Pastiches and parodies have dogged Conan Doyle’s creation almost from the start. The author himself wrote some unofficial Holmes stories and his son, Adrian Conan Doyle, followed suit. From P.G. Wodehouse to J.M. Barrie, from Mark Twain to Stephen King, many have composed homages to the great detective.
He’s been sent to Tibet and India, joined hands with Count Dracula, saved the world from the Nazis, set foot in the United States, and left Earth to combat extra-terrestrials and robots. Among contemporary writers who have stayed faithful to Holmes’s roots are Lyndsay Faye, whose compelling Dust and Shadow has Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper, and Anthony Horowitz, whose sombre The House of Silk was billed as the first novel authorised by the Doyle estate.
The impact of the residents of 221B Baker Street has been immense, even for those not in the business of Holmes adaptations. John le Carré writes that contemporary police dramas draw on them repeatedly, and modern thrillers would be lost without them.
Chances are that nowadays, more are familiar with TV and film adaptations of the Holmes stories. As with print, there have been several versions, leading up to performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, irascible yet charming, and Robert Downey Jr, frantic yet imperious.Those two productions are an unstable mix of Doyle’s inventions, modern anti-hero tropes, star charisma, and technical shenanigans. Speaking for myself, Jeremy Brett in the Granada TV series is yet to be surpassed.
Where does Holmes go from here? Some argue that we’ve had enough of privileged white males saving society, thank you. They also point to moments of racism in the original stories, such as the description of Tonga, the Andaman Islander in The Sign of the Four, or the treatment of a Black boxer in The Adventure of the Yellow Face.
The racist elements are clearly deplorable. Even devoted Sherlockians such as Leslie Klinger have pointed out that Doyle was a “mixed bag” of opinions and prejudices and that “the air of the canon would be sweeter” without such scenes. In Doyle’s defence, in the story The Five Orange Pips, the Ku Klux Klan is denigrated as a “terrible” group committing outrages against African Americans.
Holmes is also accused of being misogynistic. “Women are never to be entirely trusted -- not the best of them,” he tells Watson in The Sign of the Four. Good old Watson finds this “an atrocious sentiment”. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Watson further writes that Holmes “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer”.
Even so, there are several scenes in the canonical stories when Holmes shows courtesy and concern towards both women and men. In The Second Stain, he displays an understanding of the constricted roles that women are expected to play at that time, not to mention his famous regard for Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia. Perhaps Holmes’s fondness for theatrical statements occasionally got the better of him.
Different eras have overcome misgivings by re-shaping Holmes and his world through their own lens. When it comes to imposing order on chaos, as James Krasner says, “the way we reimagine him shows his enduring appeal as a character even as it reveals our own cultural preoccupations.”
Thus, there’s a book series and TV adaptation around Enola, Holmes’s feisty younger sister; novels featuring the detective as a kindly retired beekeeper imparting advice to a spirited young woman; and a TV series around the antics of the Baker Street Irregulars.
In other shows such as House and Elementary, troubling tendencies aren’t eliminated but explained. Dr Gregory House and Elementary’s Sherlock have complicated relationships with their parents, for example. The former has a leg injury that leads to a painkiller addiction, and the latter is a recovering drug addict. There are also nods to female agency, notably the role of Elementary’s Watson being played by Lucy Liu.In the 1995 film GoldenEye, M calls James Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, and the films that followed took steps to save the secret agent from extinction. It remains to be seen whether Holmes will get the same treatment. Can you smoothen out his eccentricities without getting rid of the qualities that make him iconic? Quite a three-pipe problem.