Moriarty was framed!


Moriarty by Sidney Paget

I launched a new mystery series on Wednesday (June 1) with Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s the Professor James Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes universe invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

My Moriarty is a good guy, just to get us off on the right foot. I first conceived of this series in 2012, when I was still trying to come up with something that would please the big publishing corporations. Sherlock Holmes was huge — huger than usual, even. The first Robert Downey movie came out in 2009 and the second one in 2011. This was my best shot at a commercial idea.

I wrote the first draft in 2013, but by the time I finished it, I got fed up with the traditional route and decided to go indie. So I put this book aside to focus on my Francis Bacon series.

Never can say good-bye

Once I spend that much time with my characters, though, I have a hard time giving them up. I like my Moriarty. I made him stand-up guy, a thoroughly decent Victorian man who tries to do the right thing, as he sees it, even when everyone around him is cheating away. I have a scene where he goes rowing on the Thames to think things through that kept coming back to me. Why that particular scene, I don’t know, but it called to me.

And I enjoyed writing Angelina, his match. Victorian women had more freedom of movement than Elizabethan women, even inside the bounds of respectability. They could be actresses, like Angelina. They could travel alone, if they wanted to. There are hackney cabs and dinner parties and fêtes at country estates. There’s tons more Victorian stuff still out there in the world to look at too, not to mention the vast and delightful literature of the period, most of which has been made into Masterpiece Theater productions. I had to go back.

When fiction becomes reality

Sherlock Holmes is as much a part of our culture as Sir Walter Ralegh. The canon must be respected, even when my intention is to subvert it. I don’t write dark and gritty anti-heroes, so my master criminal has to be a good guy. That means that (a) he has to have honorable reasons for committing crimes and (b) Holmes has to be wrong about him.

The first condition is easy enough to meet: let him fall in love and let the woman he loves be in trouble. He’ll do anything to save her. Angelina has lived by her wits all her life, so her ideas of right and wrong are flexible. Also, there was a lot of legal injustice in the Victorian period; more even than now. Lots of greedy men — and some women — exploiting new technologies and territories as fast as they could, with the laws needed to protect the weak always straggling far behind. I’ll blog about that more later this month. For now, it’s enough to note that Moriarty and Angelina might skirt the law from time to time, but they do it to seek justice where the law can’t go.

You might not think Paget’s Moriarty is attractive enough for the likes of Angelina, but that portrait isn’t young_patrick_stewartaccurate. Conan Doyle described Moriarty as having a high domed forehead, for example. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Patrick Stewart seems to have lost his hair at an early age and it doesn’t lessen his attractiveness one whit.

The second condition turns out to be easy too. Twenty-first century interpretations of Sherlock Holmes tend to accentuate the eccentric side of the great detective to the point of turning him into a “high-functioning sociopath,” to quote the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. He’s a nut job; brilliant, yes, and a preternaturally gifted investigator, but otherwise quite barmy.

In my version, Holmes is so challenged by Moriarty’s intelligence, he builds a sort of mythology about him, casting him in the role of Great Opponent. That antagonism will develop over the series. I’ll save the timeline for another post too.

Homage vs theft

At the time I started this book, there was an ongoing copyright dispute between a Holmes scholar and the Conan Doyle Estate. It wasn’t clear if I could publish a book about Professor Moriarty (although there are others.) I had an agent at that time; she didn’t know either.

The dispute has since been resolved in favor of Sherlockians everywhere. All but the last 10 works published after 1923 have been deemed to be in the public domain in the United States, as well as in most of the rest of the world. The dispute revolved around Mitch Cullin’s book A Slight Trick of the Mind, later developed into the movie Mr. Holmes. The article linked here again is worth reading, if you’re interested in copyright issues.

So I’m home free, with the always astonishing Victorian period to roam about in and another cool-tempered, introverted intellectual to solve crimes with. Good thing I’m retired, eh?


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