Dial M for Moriarty

Any child growing up with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats may be forgiven for thinking that T S Eliot is the master par excellence of children's literature, a post-modern cross between Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Indeed, this slim volume's whimsical verses have delighted children and adults alike, especially after Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the poems for his musical hit Cats, and introduced us to the hitherto hidden world of complex cat-names. Who would have thought that the felines we trivially call Tabby or Kitty or Pussy, are actually named Mungojerrie or Deuteronomy or Skimbleshanks? And of all the cats that have captured our imagination, none is more infamous than Macavity, the mystery cat.

What is less known is that Macavity, the criminal mastermind behind every domestic disturbance and national crisis, was modelled after Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' arch nemesis. Not only did they resemble each other physically (tall and thin with high domed foreheads and reptilian body movements), but even intellectually they shared a similar interest in mathematics.

Moriarty, who was born to a respectable family and received an upper class education, won acclaim and adulation at the early age of twenty-one with his Treatise on the Binomial Theorem and the subsequent publication of his esoteric tome, The Dynamics of an Asteroid. These were instrumental in catapulting him to a wider European audience and raised him to the Chair of Mathematics at a small English university. He was however forced to resign his position after it became apparent that his academic robe was a facade for his role as Mafia Godfather of the criminal underworld.

Since his death on May 4, 1891, literally in the hands of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (the actual spot is immortalised by a plaque), speculation has been rife as to the true identity of Professor Moriarty and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character. Disregarding the school of thought that believes that Holmes and Moriarty are one and the same (since Watson never actually meets Moriarty, it is alleged that Holmes created this alter-ego to relieve his tedium), the scientific works on which Moriarty's academic credentials rest are similar to Srinivasa Ramanujan's generalisations of the binomial theorem and Carl Friedrich Gauss' paper on the orbit of the planetoid Ceres Ferdinandea. Even as the Journal of British Astronomical Association bemoaned in a 1993 article that Britain's greatest criminal was regretfully a member of the astronomy community, it also revealed that Moriarty may have been modelled after astronomer Simon Newcomb, just as Moriarty's henchman Sebastian Moran was inspired by Newcomb's professional peer Alfred Drayson.

Another interesting parallel is drawn by Holmes scholar, H R F Keating, who highlights a biographical similarity between Professor Moriarty and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a contemporary who gained the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four, but had to resign it due to his deteriorating health and unconventional ideas ("God is dead"). Holmes himself has compared Moriarty with eighteenth century thief-taker Jonathan Wild, while the expression "Napoleon of Crime", used by Holmes to describe Moriarty, was actually reserved by Scotland Yard for Adam Worth, a German-born gentleman criminal.

Whatever be the antecedents and pedigree of Moriarty and Macavity, their exploits have spiced up the annals of criminology, offering timeless thrills to readers, and may have caused Satyajit Ray to christen his detective Feluda's sworn adversary, Maganlal Meghraj, with the letter M.

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

T S Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

1 comment:

Joy said...

Interesting read... and also the comment about Meghraj :)