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The Shape-Shifting Sherlock Holmes, Now Playing the Villain

Sherlock Holmes was born, magnifying glass in hand, in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. In the first chapter of that entry, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” a character described Holmes this way: “He is a little queer in his ideas — an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.”

Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, has had a stranglehold on the popular imagination ever since. Conan Doyle died in 1930, but Holmes carries on — on television, on film, in comics, in your earbuds, even in video games and tabletop games.

During Conan Doyle’s life, Holmes appeared in many disguises — a clergyman, a sailor, an old woman. Holmes has since ranged further. He has become a brawler, a lover, a reanimated corpse with a robot companion, a foe of the old Gods, a doctor, a woman, a teen.

Few other 19th-century literary figures rival Holmes’s fame. And those that do — Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature — are monsters. Is Holmes one, too? That’s the provocative suggestion of “Moriarty: The Devil’s Game,” a 10-episode audio drama written by Charles Kindinger, which debuts on Audible on Thursday. It stars Dominic Monaghan (best known for playing a hobbit in the “Lord of the Rings” films and Charlie Pace on “Lost”) as James Moriarty, Holmes’s nemesis, with Phil LaMarr as Holmes.

“He’s a figure that can work in any environment, any planet, any era,” Leslie S. Klinger, an editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” told me recently. “And that very plasticity has made him popular, because he’s been reinvented over and over again.”

Because “Moriarty” takes place long before Holmes and Moriarty do damp, climactic battle in Conan Doyle’s 1883 story “The Final Problem,” its protagonist has not yet become the “Napoleon of crime.” When the story begins, Moriarty is still an oblivious math professor and Holmes is the expert witness who condemns him as a murderer. Both an origin story and a topsy-turvy script-flipping, the drama, which has enough cliffhangers to make nonsense of a topographical map, sympathizes with Moriarty and savages Holmes.

Kindinger, who describes himself as a lifelong fan, didn’t necessarily set out to cast Holmes as a villain. But in researching “Moriarty,” he read back through Conan Doyle’s stories. Certain aspects of Holmes’s character began to trouble him. A decent fellow? Maybe not. “Like, how does he talk about women?” Kindinger told me. “It’s not great! And how does he treat the people around him?” Not great either.

I should probably mention that I have spent years in thrall to Holmes. A month ago, I would never have described myself as particularly devoted to the man, but in listening to “Moriarty” and in speaking to a handful of experts, I realized that I had read all of the 56 stories and the four novels at least twice, seen a lot of the films and the various TV series, consumed stacks of pastiches by everyone from P.G. Wodehouse to Neil Gaiman to Laurie R. King and played through the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective board game. Which is to say that maybe Holmes isn’t the only one who can’t admit to addiction issues.

Why does Holmes inspire such devotion in people like me? Nicholas Meyer, whose novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” is a distinguished work of Holmes pastiche, has a theory. “Real life is purposeless, anarchic, accidental, chaotic, unjust,” he said during a recent video call. “In detective stories, unlike in real life, it all makes sense.” And no one makes it make sense better than Holmes, a man who weaponizes logic, discernment and ardent objectivity, all for the greater good. A benevolent God, an all-seeing daddy.

But Holmes’s greater good has its limits. Privileging logic, Holmes has little time for civility or compassion. A snob, he dismisses those of lesser intelligence, and his attitudes toward women range from contempt to condescension. Infatuated with the game, he often abuses its minor players. In that first novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” he straight-up murders a terrier. When it comes to John Watson, Holmes’s best friend, amanuensis and sometimes roommate, Holmes criticizes him, deceives him, disappears for years and lets Watson believe him dead.

“If you go back and you look at what it’s like to actually be best friends with Sherlock Holmes, it’s terrible,” said Ashley Polasek, a Holmes scholar.

Contemporary clinicians have diagnosed all sorts of ailments in Holmes, including bipolar disorder, psychopathy and a place along the autism spectrum. But you could just as easily diagnose the late Victorian strain of toxic masculinity. “It’s really just being careless with the emotions of people who should be dear to you,” Polasek said. If you are a hero who treats nearly everyone around you — to say nothing of the dog — appallingly, how much of a hero are you, anyway?”

In the last half century, authors and showrunners have prepared the way for a drama like “Moriarty,” questioning Holmes’s habits and attitudes, rendering him as a kind of antihero. Beyond Meyer’s novel, there is Michael Dibdin’s pulpy “The Last Sherlock Holmes Story,” John R. Gardner’s Moriarty books, the recent BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and the manga and anime series “Moriarty the Patriot.”

“Almost everything in the Sherlockian universe has been done before,” Klinger put it, dryly.

At the same time, there have been efforts to soften Holmes, as in King’s Mary Russell novels, or to sidestep him, as in Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series, which shifts the focus to a younger sister. Does this mean that the time is up for the Holmes of the canon? Has the deerstalker fallen out of fashion?

“It’s hard for me, because I don’t know how we reconcile what was written with where we are as a society now,” Kindinger said. “It’s very tough.”

The Audible series that he wrote emphasizes Holmes’s narcissism and his cruelty, the terrible toll that his need to be right exacts. Of course, it is also an entertainment, festooned in shockers, squeakers and the occasional caper. There are enough Easter eggs to fill a child’s basket. Conan Doyle, who maintained a famously ambivalent attitude to his hero, would have found it a bit much.

“Moriarty” may not be entirely fair to Holmes. The detective of Conan Doyle’s stories is more skeptical of power. Excepting dogs and incidents of self-defense, he is not a murderer. Occasionally he admits an error. Which means that Holmes can probably live to detect another day.

“It’s not like we’re going to get to a point where we do enough readings of Holmes as problematic that we decide to cancel Sherlock Holmes,” Polasek said. “I don’t think that’s coming.”

But if “Moriarty” succeeds as something more than a distraction for your commute, it can work as a goad to reconsider Holmes, accepting his strengths (intelligence, doggedness), his weaknesses (egotism, insensitivity), his quirks (those kinky disguises). We can understand him as limited, prone to error, doing the best he can with his particular gifts and deficits, which is to say that maybe, a century and more after his birth, we can finally understand him as human.

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