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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Moriarty the Archetype

Thinking recently about the role of Sherlock Holmes in the development of detective fiction, it occurred to me that the Moriarty was nearly as important.

In order to do away with Holmes in a fitting manner, Conan Doyle invented a new fictional archetype almost as a side-effect – the criminal mastermind. Holmes needed a worthy opponent, and he got one in the person of Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime – “organizer of half that is evil and almost all that is undetected in this great city.”

Just as Holmes had a real-life counterpart in Dr. Joseph Bell, Moriarty was based largely on - but exceeded - the real-life 19th century criminal Adam Worth. (A biography of Worth is even called The Napoleon of Crime.) In fiction, however, he had no antecedent. Dupin, Lecoq and Wilke Collkins’s Sergeant Cuff never faced such a bent genius.

Plenty of their successors have, however. Denis Nayland Smith had Dr. Fu Manchu; Bulldog Drummond, Carl Peterson; Nero Wolfe, Arnold Zeck; Superman, Lex Luthor, the 87th Precinct, the Deaf Man; and James Bond, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

None of these villains rises to the stature of Moriarty as an iconic figure, and it is likely that none of them would have existed if he had not come first.

Who is your favorite fictional villain?

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