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Friday, October 11, 2013

The World's First Supervillain

Professor Moriarty at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, 221 Baker Street, London
Next spring at the Mad Anthony Writers Conference, I will be presenting a 75-minute workshop on villains. Naturally, this has me thinking about literature's first supervillain -- Professor James Moriarty. 

In order to do away with Holmes in a fitting manner in "The Final Problem," Arthur 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.”

Moriarty is such a powerful creation that pastiche writers and filmmakers can't resist using him, even though he only gets a speaking role in one Canonical story. (The other references are post-mortum and in passing, except in The Valley of Fear.) 

Just as Holmes had a real-life counterpart in Dr. Joseph Bell, Moriarty was based on -- but exceeded -- a real-life 19th century criminal, Adam Worth. In fiction, however, Moriarty had no antecedent. Dupin, Lecoq and Wilke Collkins’s Sergeant Cuff never faced such a bent genius.

Plenty of their successors have, however. 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.

But 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. 

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