Historical Fiction


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!


Historical Novel Society meeting, Oxford

I’m off to the meeting of the Historical Novel Society in beautiful Oxford this weekend. (That’s England, y’all; not Mississippi.) This trip is part of my ongoing celebration of my 60th birthday; plus, I had the frequent flyer miles. And I’ve never been to Oxford! All my characters went to Cambridge.

The history of the historical society

HNS was founded in the UK in 1997 to support and promote historical fiction. At the time, the foundershns2016 felt the genre was getting short shrift*. Apart from holding a truly enjoyable annual conference, they also write reviews. Some are published in the paper journal the Historical Novel Review, which is sent to members each quarter; others are published online.

I’m happy to note that each of my Francis Bacon books has been warmly reviewed by HNS. The Widows Guild even earned an Editor’s Choice star, which puts it on the long list for an award in 2017. That will be in Portland, OR, and I’ll be there.

The conference alternates between the UK and the US. I first learned of the organization around 2013, although I didn’t go to the conference in Florida that year. They met in London in 2014 and in Denver in 2015. I did go to that one, where I met many fellow members of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (HFAC; a great source of well-written, original historical fiction.) I wore my Francis Bacon costume and signed a couple of books. All good.

My programme

Actually, I’m writing this post weeks ahead. I don’t usually blog from abroad (although now I have a dandy new tablet, I might surprise us all.) I was going to note highlights of the program from the website when I was reminded that being British, our hosts had us register for the panels we wanted to attend in advance. In the US, we wander from room to room during the meeting, checking out all the speakers and then settling with whichever one meets our immediate criteria. Pros and cons for both methods.

I’m going to learn about Real Life Heroes and Heroines; Writing the Historical Thriller; Reader Appreciation (because writers certainly appreciate readers!); and Streets Through the Ages. I don’t remember what some of those titles mean, but I like surprises.

tea-cakeThe most fun thing for me will be hanging out with fellow HFAC members Suzanne Tyrpak and Janet Oakley, and meeting British indie authors like Helen Hollick, Anna Belfrage, and Alison Morton. Oh, and let’s not forget the tea cake. (The fiendish Brits put tea cake out in front of you everywhere you’re liable to stop when you’re tired from sightseeing.)

After the meeting, I’ll spend two weeks tootling around London looking at everything I can think of for upcoming books. Victorian theater, the British Army (especially the cavalry), Elizabethan printing presses, and of course, houses and gardens. I’m going on a backstage tour of the Drury Lane Theater and of the last surviving music hall in the East End, Wilton’s. Alas, the National Army Museum will be closed! But there’s music in churches, Macbeth at the Globe, tea at the Savoy… All in all, a fabulous trip. 

Pictures upon my return.

short shrift: orig. a brief space of time allowed for a criminal to make his confession before execution; hence, a brief respite; to give short shrift to, to make short work of. (OED. I was curious!)


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