Holmes for the Holidays

Five Holmes Antagonists Who Weren’t Moriarty

Like Sherlock’s deerstalker hat and signature cloak, the notion of Moriarty far exceeds his presence in the actual Conan Doyle canonical stories. In fact, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis only appears in two adventures; “The Final Problem” and “The Valley of Fear,” and both times more as plot device than a fully realized character. In this way, the various non-Doyle interpretations of Moriarty in both prose pastiches, film, television, or theatre have been more dynamic and instrumental in creating our idea of the character than the Moriarty presented in the original text.

But even with two appearances, the character of Moriarty could have been drawn a little more clearly than he was. Doyle mostly wanted to kill off Holmes and, as such, needed the ultimate bad guy. But some of Doyle’s other baddies were a little more developed than Moriarty. They, too, may have just been plot devices, but some of them were just as badass, and maybe a little more realistic than Moriarty.

Charles Augustus Milverton (“Charles Augustus Milverton”)

Paget's illustration of MilvertonThough there is a story in the Holmes canon called “The Creeping Man” the story which contains Charles Augustus Milverton should maybe have been retitled “The Creepy Man.” Milverton is lecherous blackmailer with the most insidious of black books. He collects embarrassing odds and ends about the lives of various people and then extorts them for as much money as he can. Supposedly, Milverton was based on a real life art-dealer who was also a blackmailer named Charles Augustus Howell. In the grand scheme of Holmes villains who have a web of influence that the reader actually gets to see, Milverton is one of the best drawn. Finally, this villain is interesting because it indicates Holmes’ willingness to defend a virtue he cherishes perhaps more than justice — the right for all people to have a large amount of privacy.

Col. Sebastian Moran (“The Empty House”)

Paget's illustration of Moran's arrest in THE EMPTY HOUSEA sharpshooter with a long-distance air gun, Moran is one of the remaining members of Moriarty’s gang and is out for revenge in “The Empty House.” This story is famous as it features the official return of Sherlock Holmes from his presumed death in “The Final Problem.” (He had already returned in the form of a flashback in the novella The Hound of the Baskervilles.) Moran is dangerous in a more conventional way than some of creepos and schemers of other Holmes stories. In essence, Moran is an assassin who is very good at doing assassin stuff. In a sense, Moran is a bit of a foil to Watson insofar as both are ex-military who can handle a pistol. In the recent Guy Ritchie movie, A Game of Shadows, this notion is depicted literally with Watson squaring off against Moran with a variety of different firearms. Though Moran is basically just a slick trigger-finger for Moriarty, he does more direct killing than his boss, making him just a bit more hardcore. It also appears he just got his own tumblr.

Henry “Holy” Peter (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)

Holmes and Watson confront Holy Peter

Henry “Holy” Peter has many aliases and a long history of taking people into his confidence and convincing them to donate large sums of money to his various chartable causes. In the tragic story “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” Holy Peter convinces Lady Frances he is a philanthropic priest helping to spread the good word in Africa and save starving children. The well-meaning Lady Frances falls for it, and nearly winds up dead. Holy Peter’s plan includes burying Lady Frances alive in a casket secretly designed for two people. Holy Peter is so good at talking people into things that Holmes nearly doesn’t deduce what is really going on. Because Holmes and Watson are essentially late on the scene in the final moments of the story, Holy Peter is among the few schemers who briefly outsmarted everyone’s favorite detective. Holmes and Watson confront Holy Peter

John Woodley (“The Solitary Cyclist.”)

With an “odious” visage and a body that constantly smells like booze, this guy isn’t so much of foil for Holmes, but rather a thug to be delt with. Woodley is involved in a complicated plot to forcibly marry Violet Smith in order to get her father’s fortune. He’s in league with a crackpot priest and who helps him perform a creepy shotgun wedding at the climax of the story. Notably, Woodley is one of a select group of people who Holmes takes down with his fists. In a particularly fantastic bar room brawl scene, Holmes shows Woodley one can both be a gentleman and a badass at the same time. Jeremy Brett interpreted this splendidly in the Granada Television 1984 version of the story. Watch above.

Irene Adler (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)

Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Gayle Hunnicutt as Adler from 1984's A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA

Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Gayle Hunnicutt as Adler from 1984's A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA

Behind Watson and Moriarty, Irene Adler is probably the most recognizable name from the original Holmes canon, even for those who have never actually read the stories. Irene Adler is the scandal in Bohemia, but is also the scandal in Baker Street too! Not only does Irene Adler impress Holmes with her blackmailing skill and her ability to disguise herself, she also turns him on a little bit. As anyone knows, Holmes frequently refers to her as “the Woman” not in a pejorative sexist way, but instead as a term of reverence and dare-we-say it — affection. Like Batman having his Catwoman, Holmes had Irene Adler.

Rachel McAdams as Adler in SHERLOCK HOLMESIt’s interesting that this adventure is the first short story of the Conan Doyle canon insofar as the 56 stories make up far more of the backbone of the original texts than the four novels. If you one were to skip the novels and start here, they might assume Holmes became cold and unfeeling towards romance because of this story. In this way, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is to Holmes what Vesper’s suicide note is to James Bond in the novel Casino Royale. Smartly, Guy Ritchie brought Irene in on the action for the new films, and she’s set to show up on the 21st century Steven Moffat show too. However, perhaps the best non-canoical appearance of Irene Adler is in Nicolas Meyer’s The Canary Trainer where Irene is back to her roots, not as a blackmailer, but as an opera singer. She can shoot, steal, sneak, and sing. What a lady.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He admits to squeeing when Moran’s name was mentioned in the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

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