This article contains spoilers.
So that’s it, then. We’d just got accustomed to Andrew Scott’s controversial interpretation of Moriarty: episodes of manic glee coupled with listless, empty-hearted musings, taking all the amoral instincts of the Victorian professor and giving the character a younger, modern spin. Unfortunately for us – if not for his nemesis, Sherlock – Moriarty’s gone, apparently for good. A self-inflicted bullet to the head set the seal on what he’d hoped would be a spiral of disgrace for our favourite dapper detective.
Despite the fact that Moriarty’s demise ended up (we hope) being a huge win for the good guys, there’s a problem. The mesmerising interplay between hero and villain provided all the drama of the final episode, having cast a dark, foreboding shadow over all that came before it. What now?
And yes, I know – that ‘apparently for good’ leaves the subject of Moriarty’s return open to debate. We may have seen the evil genius prostrate in a spreading pool of his own blood at the close of The Reichenbach Fall, but then Sherlock himself did plunge from the top of a pretty tall building, leaving John Watson to grieve over his pitifully broken body. Did he really make the leap, though? Let’s face it, he seemed to have recovered rather well as he watched his own funeral from a discreet distance…
It’s tempting to assume that Sherlock’s evil mirror image might have survived his own suicide attempt, too, but for now, we have to assume that Moriarty is no more. Steven Moffat recently gave an interview to a French website, in which he stated that Moriarty was a ‘one-shot deal’ in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, and that he and co-creator Mark Gatiss wanted to have a shot at (no pun intended) the ‘other great villains’ who faced the master detective over the course of four novels and fifty-six short stories. Of course, none of this precludes a return by Scott – Lost-style flashbacks, anyone? Okay, maybe not – but the general impression is that Moffat’s ready to move on.
The question is, where to? Who are all these other ‘great villains’ Moffat brought up?
There’s one very obvious contender, and it’ll be a strange thing indeed if Sherlock superfans Moffat and Gatiss don’t resurrect him for their twenty-first-century update. Doyle’s Moriarty might have had a crime network all of his own, but he didn’t run it alone. His partner-in-crime was Colonel Sebastian Moran, old Etonian and disgraced former army officer. After returning from Afghanistan, Moran drifted into a dissolute life of card games and dodgy dealing before his recruitment by Moriarty. His particular skill? That military background means he’s a crack shot with a rifle, and the man Moriarty turns to when he needs someone to be disposed of quickly and quietly.
You might now be putting two and two together, and wondering whether we have, in fact, already seen him. Moffat and Gatiss’s ‘Napoleon of Crime’ had his very own team of snipers. Could Moran have been behind one of those laser sights, called off at the last minute when Sherlock appeared to have carried out the final, fatal stage of Moriarty’s plan? There’s a lot of potential for this character. Like John Watson, he’s an army man who’s done duty in Afghanistan, so could provide an interesting negative mirror image for Sherlock’s sidekick, just as his late boss did for the detective himself. He’d need to be somebody cool, controlled and urbane, sharing only one true characteristic with Watson – a readiness to kill to protect his closest associate. Here’s a casting idea to set the cat among the pigeons: we’ve seen plenty of rumours linking Benedict Cumberbatch to the role of The Master, but how about Matt Smith as the next Holmesian big bad? Just a thought.
Moran’s far from the only plausible candidate to replace Moriarty at the top of Sherlock’s list of enemies. Bear in mind that this is the man who can successfully turn the police against him, and you’ll understand the problem: anybody could be gunning for Sherlock, metaphorically or not. However, he has more pressing day-to-day problems: namely, how to prevent his clients from being bumped off, robbed or generally made miserable by some ne’er-do-well or other.
One of the most unpleasant and sinister figures in Doyle’s work is Dr. Roylott, whose stepdaughter comes to visit Holmes after the mysterious death of her sister. The doomed sister’s last words to her were ‘It was the speckled band!’ Answers on a postcard, but think extremely deadly reptiles, and you’re on the right track. We’re unlikely to get more than the germ of the eponymous tale, though, as A Scandal in Belgravia has already jokingly referenced it in Watson’s online summary of a minor case, “The Speckled Blonde”… However, scheming, avaricious family members are something of a subcategory of villain in Doyle’s stories, and the brutal Roylott, whose physical strength and cunning are almost a match for Sherlock’s, is a particularly nasty example.
Some of those unhappy with the portrayal of Irene Adler in the second series were quick to suggest the plucky governess, Violet Hunter, as another, perhaps more suitable, love interest, or whatever passes for it in Sherlock’s world. Another character from her story, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, is a contender for a guest appearance: Rucastle, the scheming father of a disobedient daughter whose annuity is more appealing to him than her company. With his mood swings and almost too perfect ability to act his way out of tricky situations, Rucastle might be a little too close to Scott’s Moriarty, but a thoughtful reinterpretation of the character could circumvent that problem.
Not all of Sherlock’s antagonists are murderers or fraudsters. One story that positively cries out for a modern reworking is The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. The slimy individual of the title is a professional blackmailer, profiting from the secrets of the rich and famous. Holmes manages to embed himself in Milverton’s household at the behest of a wealthy and desperate client, only to find that another of Milverton’s victims has a rather more permanent method of silencing the villain. The concept of the heartless blackmailer and his misdeeds recast within a new, modern world of 24-hour celebrity culture is appealing. After Sherlock’s brief foray into that environment during The Great Game, the prospect of more fish-out-of-water shenanigans makes this one a good bet.
All being well, we might not have to wait quite as long this time to find out who will succeed Moriarty as Sherlock’s next antagonist. Can anybody else hate him, want to be him or covet something of his as much as his criminal counterpart did? Given some of the supersleuth’s recent acerbic one-liners, it’s quite possible. But for those individuals willing to kill for something eminently covetable in Sherlock’s possession, they’re wasting their time. We saw the evidence in series two’s finale – he’s taking that coat to the grave…