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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

More than Moriarty - Villains in the Canon

Jephro Rucastle and Violet Hunter
A super sleuth cries out for a super villain to test his talents. 

That’s why it took the first Master Criminal in crime fiction to (apparently) vanquish Sherlock Holmes.  And small wonder that in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” Holmes lamented that “London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty.”

Despite the unending fascination evoked by the very name of Moriarty, however, the Canon is chock full of other great villains, both before and after Reichenbach. Several showed up in the dozen or so Holmes stories I reread recently in writing my talk on “Gothic Holmes” for the “Holmes, Doyle,& Friends Three” conference in Dayton next month.

Unlike the criminal in a whodunit, especially of the least-likely-person variety that dominated the Golden Age of mystery writing, the villain in a Gothic romance is often a menacing figure from the get-go. The mystery then revolves around not who but why or how or sometimes, as in “Shoscombe Old Place,” even what.

Who can ever forget the snarling Dr. Grimesby Roylott bending a poker and throwing it into the fireplace after exchanging a few pleasantries? “You are Holmes the meddler! Holmes the busybody! Holmes the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!” Holmes bending it back after Roylott has left is a priceless bit of theater. 

But for sheer creepiness, my favorite villain is not Roylott, or that “most odious person” Jack Woodley in “The Solitary Cyclist,” or the “devil of a fellow” called Sir Robert Norberton in “Shoscombe.” No, the one who would keep me up at night is the smiling Jephro Rucastle in the highly Gothic “Adventure of the Copper Beaches.” Listen to him talk about his son:

“‘One child – one dear little romper just six years old. Oh, if you could see him killing cockroaches with a slipper! Smack! smack! smack! Three gone before you could wink!’ He leaned back his chair and laughed his eyes into his head again.”

Later, with his smile hardening into a grin of rage, Rucastle threatens to throw Violet Hunter to the mastiff.  Miss Hunter describes her evil employer at that point as glaring down at her “with the face of a demon.”

He is no match for Moriarty in the scope of his crimes, but Alice Rucastle’s father is in his own twisted way every bit as evil.  

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