Sherlock Holmes


Come with me to the Docklands museum!

The London Museum of the Docklands is a delightful place to spend a few hours learning new docklands-museumthings, one of my favorite activities. They offer well-curated exhibits about shipping and trade from the late 16th century to the present, including an extended section on slavery. Each exhibit included curious objects in glass cases, as one would expect, but there were also lots of maps and paintings of the docklands from the period in question, along with excellent notes.

I took the tube to Canary Wharf and followed the ever-present signs directing tourists to the fun stuff. The streets here are lined with tall, new office buildings. Lots of people in suits walking briskly to and fro. I stupidly went out to forage for lunch at noon and found every single eatery jam-packed with those people in suits. I ended up eating at a burrito place, though one does not normally travel from Texas to London to eat Mexican food. Ah, the irony.


Where we were

The modern Canary Wharf area spans the old parish of Poplar, Limehouse, and the Isle of Dogs. In isle-of-dogsElizabethan times, the Isle of Dogs was desolate marshland. Poplar was nothing; blink, and you’d miss it. Limehouse was a village with a bustling strip along the riverside. A couple of pubs have survived from that time to this: The Grapes and, closer to Wapping, the Prospect of Whitby. The characters in my latest Francis Bacon mystery, The Spymaster’s Brother, stop in at the Grapes.

In Victorian times, Limehouse was notorious, with narrow, filthy streets, big warehouses, and dodgy taverns. You took your life in your hands, wandering through those alleys at night. Naturally, Sherlock Holmes knew that terrain like his own violin.


Instruments of destruction

The museum calls them tools for weighing and measuring, but we writers of murder mysteries know better. You could sabotage some of these things, I’ll bet, though the curator failed to provide that sort of detail. You could certainly use them to cause seemingly accidental deaths. And then there are all these giant hemp baskets to hide the body in! You could probably nail your victim’s corpse inside a big barrel and set it where it will be loaded on the next ship to China. SO many options!



I love these old barrels, for some odd reason. I’m thinking about a young woman —  a teenager, really — who hides in such a barrel to smuggle herself onto a ship, to travel to London to consult the great Sherlock Holmes. She’s clutching the tattered copy of The Strand which someone read to her, telling a tale about the brilliant detective. Somehow, she ends up consulting my Professor Moriarty instead, lucky for her!



Life on the docks

I love the way they intersperse art from the period with the artifacts. Look at these sailors carousing in a Wapping alehouse. I’m pretty sure you won’t this sort of rowdy behavior at the Prospect of Whitby nowadays!


I take pictures of these things partly so I can share them with you, but also because it’s easier than taking notes. When I get home, I can look up the image and see who owns it. This one comes from the Guildhall Library. Hm.

They set up a few tableaux as well, so we can imagine our warehouse clerks and customs officials at their jobs. These exhibits are fun to look at, but hard to photograph because of the shiny glass and the somewhat dim lighting. But I try, because someday Moriarty is going to have to go down to this office to sneak a peek at some records while Angelina distracts the clerk.



At last, the whole story is told

All the museums I visit have updated their exhibits to include a period of English and American history that was suppressed for a long, long time. We’re talking about slavery, a great disaster perpetrated by one group against another. We’re still struggling to repair the damage wrought by those centuries of shame. Getting the story straight is part of that process. Here’s some of them well-written exposition from the Docklands exhibit.


This part of the exhibit was full of people, so I didn’t take pictures of the stuff, sorry. They also had a typical dock-workers home that kids could play in. Some kids were cheerfully demolishing it, so I didn’t get pix of that either. And then there were rows of boxes filled with fragrant stuff that you could open and sniff and try to guess which was what. They had vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon…  all the spices that came to England through the docklands. I opened all the boxes and found no opium, so it wasn’t perfect. (They never have opium in these exhibits!)

All along the waterfront

I take pix of the cards under paintings I want to study at home, like this one.


I found this one in Wikipedia, just as I hoped.

Greenwich Hospital by John Paul, 1835

And here’s another look at the life of the folk who lived and worked in the docklands.


The caption says, “The kitchen of one of the poorer lodging houses visited by Henry Mayhew around 1861. The lodgers are all eating because Mayhew provided them with a meal, but there are few chairs and virtually no cutlery.”

Henry Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor (1851), the result of his deep dive into the lower reaches of London life. I have a copy on my shelf, as it happens. If and when my Moriartys take their own dive into those precincts, I’ll read at least some of it. Pretty stiff stuff.

Where ideas come from

Sometimes people ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” One of my answers is, “In museums.” I looked at this exhibit and my mind exploded. What do you think: Moriarty Smells the Coffee? I think I may have to go to Jamaica for this one…

Customs officer drawing off a sample of whisky, around 1920.



Moriarty and the canon

Not this kind of canon!

My second historical series, the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty mysteries, is based (obviously) on a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The task of re-creating him for my fictional purposes was similar in some ways to writing about a real historical person about whom little is known, and that little was provided by an unreliable source.

We’ll start by looking at the canon and then move on to the work I did to provide my professor with a full history.

A brief clarification

Being a Trekkie, I often encounter variations on the word ‘canon.’ Regular readers of this blog will know that I can’t keep my fingers out of the online Oxford English Dictionary for more than an hour, so they’ll be expecting this digression to look up words. (I love to look up words! They have such curious histories!)

Not this kind either!

Trekkies who have been blasted for writing ‘cannon’ should take heart. The spelling of the artillery piece didn’t settle down until at least the eighteenth century. Before that, you could mix and match at your pleasure.

OED gives this definition for the meaning of ‘canon’ in play here: “The collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.”

Oddly, I’ve never seen anyone confuse that definition with church officials like Kanunnik Petrus-Ludovicus Stillemans (1821–1902) of Flanders, pictured, smiling. Church officials don’t usually look so friendly in their portraits. But of course they don’t figure as largely in modern society as Star Trek, which has several Wikipedia pages, including one entirely about the official canon.

Building on someone else’s planet

Although popular stories have been told, retold, and re-imagined for as long as there have been stories, as far as I know (lazily looking up no literary works on the theme) they tend to stick closely to the original tale. There aren’t any early ballads like Robin Hood Goes to Rome or The Continuing Adventures of the Knights of the Round Table: American Damsels.

Writing and film-making in fictional worlds created by someone else became increasingly popular over the second half of the 20th century, perhaps partly fueled by the demand for more stories about the characters we love in Star Trek and Star Wars and similar. TV and movies are so vivid, they stimulate a more powerful sense of reality. The canon is important for establishing the boundaries of the fictional universe.

The whole idea may have begun with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes. The first writer to borrow Holmes for his own work was Doyle’s friend, J. M. Barrie who published “The Late Sherlock Holmes” in 1893. Note that Doyle pushed Holmes into Reichenbach Falls in 1893, hoping to wash his hands of his famous character.

This comes from the Wikipedia page on Sherlock Holmes, which is worth a visit for its comprehensive treatment of the character, including his knowledge, skills, deficits, and more. There’s a book about Holmes-derivatives: The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies, and Copies by Peter Ridgway Watt and Joseph Green. All of the Holmes works are in the public domain now in both the U.K. and the U.S.

Many, many writers have written stories featuring their version of Sherlock Holmes. Novels have been based on other Doyle characters as well. Irene Adler, the clever female villain who appeared in one Doyle story, “A Study in Scarlet,” takes center stage in a series of mystery novels by Carole Nelson Douglas. M. J. Trow wrote a series featuring Inspector Lestrade, who is hopefully more effective in those stories than in Doyle’s. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft gets his turn in books by several authors. Even Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s housekeeper, takes a turn solving crimes in three books by Martin Davies.

Enter the villain

At last, we turn to the subject of this essay, Professor James Moriarty. I’m not the first to choose him as my protagonist. John Gardner, Michael Kurland, and Kim Newman have also been drawn to the antagonist as protagonist. I haven’t read any of those books, but the blurbs suggest that their Moriartys are closer to Doyle’s than mine in terms of the criminal mentality. In their works, he remains a villain through and through.

My Moriarty is a good guy. I don’t have the temperament to write a series about a dark character. At the time that I came up with this series, I was fishing for an idea that would appeal to the big corporate publishers. I wanted a fresh take on a marquee name, featured in stories with lots of romance. I wanted my protagonists to be good people, acting out of a desire to serve, not out of self-interest. Classic heroes, in other words; not anti-heroes.

And yet Professor Moriarty is a villain, everyone knows it. In some ways, he is the embodiment of villainy, the source and fountain of evil: the master criminal. How could I make that work?

Then I started reading about the late Victorian period, just grazing, and I realized that the law was wholly in capable of keeping up with the greed of the burgeoning worlds of financial and commerce. People were easily exploited and ruined with no recourse. Social standards were still so rigid that loss of position or apparent virtue could drive a woman or man into disgrace and poverty in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, the only way to right such wrongs would require breaking a few petty laws here and there.

I liked the idea of a do-gooder criminal couple. It sounded like fun, with an infinite series of stories to draw out of the injustices of the late 19thcentury, all of which still resonate in the early 21st. Now I just had to examine the canon that started this whole blog with a magnifying glass to see how to transform Doyle’s Moriarty into mine.

Load the canon

Luckily for me, Doyle didn’t devote many words to his master criminal. Moriarty appears in only seven stories out of the sixty Sherlock Holmes works. The list below comes from Sherlock Peoria.

Moriarty only has a role in two:

1888    January 7, Saturday — The Valley of Fear 
1891    April 23, Friday — “The Final Problem”

He is only mentioned in the other five:

1894    April 3, Tuesday — “The Empty House”
1894    August 1, Wednesday — “The Norwood Builder”
1897    February 6, Saturday — “The Missing Three-Quarter”

1902    September 3, Wednesday — “The Illustrious Client”

1914    August 2, Sunday — “His Last Bow”

Moriarty is thinly drawn, as well as sparsely mentioned. He also captured the popular imagination, however, earning his own Wikipedia page and a central role in most of the recent Holmes reboots.

I re-read all the stories to note every detail I could find about James Moriarty.

Here’s his physical description: tall and thin; high, domed forehead, white; eyes deeply sunken in his head; clean-shaven, pale, ascetic-looking; rounded shoulders; face protrudes forward and oscillates from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. puckered eyes (whatever that means.)

This is not an attractive man! But always remember that the description comes from Sherlock Holmes, who was clearly obsessed, via the ultra-partisan John Watson. I assumed every feature was exaggerated to form a negative impression. Remove the hostility, and I found a tall, thin man with a high-domed forehead. A “high domed forehead” in itself is not unattractive; au contraire.

I decided to make my Moriarty younger and fitter, the better to inspire jealousy in the very competitive Sherlock Holmes. I also gave him a moustache, because most men in the late Victorian period wore hair on their faces. Being perfectly clean-shaven might indicate a tendency toward aestheticism. He’ll shave it off after the turn of the century along with everyone else, if my series lasts that long.

Intellectually, Moriarty had few peers. Holmes needed an antagonist worthy of his own intellectual prowess. And class still mattered (still does.) So Doyle made Moriarty a man of good birth, good education, with a brain for math. At age 21, he wrote “a treatise upon the binomial theorem that was well known across Europe and which led to a chair in mathematics at a small British university.” But he was forced to resign his chair and move to London, where he became an ‘army coach’ – a private tutor to officers preparing for exams.

That I can work with it. If he’s a brilliant mathematician of the correct social class, he would probably have attended Rugby, one of England’s famous public schools. The mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) went there. Then of course he would continue on to Cambridge to write that paper. Cambridge has produced many mathematicians, including Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, and Bertrand Russell.

Viktor Yevgrafov as Moriarty

Once I chose Rugby, my Moriarty’s childhood fell into place. Rugby was the home of masculine Christianity: a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice, and “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, unEnglish and excessively intellectual.” (Wikipedia.)

Who would send their bright boy to such a school? A vicar from a smallish parish. I gave my James a pair of frosty parents: a vicar and wife who loathed one another, but kept up appearances in public. That and Rugby would explain my character’s stoicism and unexpressive demeanor. I wanted him to be hard to read, so that Sherlock Holmes, whose imagination is famously febrile, would fill in the blanks with the traits and attitudes of the master criminal he desired.

All I needed now was that small university from which he was forced to resign. Some other person playing this game (via Wikipedia’s citations) chose Durham University. That looked good to me too. I like the area, which is loaded with coal, one of the fountains of financial chicanery in the nineteenth century. Full circle!


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