The Fictional Assassin in Popular Culture – Sebastian Moran

Popular culture has evolved its interpretation of the fictional assassin quite a bit over the past 100 years. The interaction between the assassin and protagonist has evolved, as well. A good example is an antagonist of Sherlock Holmes, Sebastian Moran.

Sebastian Moran first made his appearance in A. Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Empty House, published in 1903. The index kept by Holmes indicated that Moran had been educated at Eton and Oxford. He eventually became a Colonel in the British Army, stationed in India and mentioned in despatches (noted for bravery or gallantry). While there, he was a masterful big game hunter whose record of tiger kills was still unequaled at the time of his Adventure with Holmes. Moran also wrote two books while in India.

Due to some unnamed but unsavory incident while he was in India, he retired and returned to London. Upon his return, Moran became allied with the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, described by Holmes as the most dangerous man in London. For a time, Moran was Moriarty’s Chief of Staff and was also used by Moriarty for “only one or two very high-class [assassination] jobs, which no ordinary criminal could have undertaken.” Holmes described Moran as the second most dangerous man in London.

The TV series Elementary is a modern day re-imagining of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is set in New York where Holmes has relocated from London. In the first season episode ‘M,’ Sebastian Moran enters the current era of the fictional assassin. However, his methods and background have changed somewhat.

He had previously come to Sherlock’s attention in London, being known only as ‘M’ at that time. M was a serial killer of dozens of people. The list of M’s London victims included Sherlock’s love interest, Irene Adler. Eventually, when caught by Sherlock in New York, M reveals his name as Sebastian Moran and that he is an assassin for an as yet unknown Moriarty. All of M’s killing in London had been in the employ of and directed by Moriarty. So the new imagining of Moran is much more prolific at murder than the original. Two scenes also indicate that Moran is an avid soccer fan and apparently from a working class background. His portrayal is more of a clever but lower class thug than the original Colonel Moran.

Perhaps the grisliest change is the method of killing employed by the century apart assassins. Colonel Moran was described by Holmes as “one of the best shots in the world.” His chosen weapon in London was a relatively quiet but extremely powerful air rifle, which fired an “expanding revolver bullet.”

The newly imagined Moran (M) has a rather different method of murdering his victims. He positions the victims for the kill by tying them up and then hanging them upside down from a portable folding tripod he carries with him. The actual killing is done by slitting their throats and letting all their blood drain out of their bodies onto the floor of their abode. Once all the blood (mistakenly described in the episode as five pints rather than five quarts/liters) is drained, M removes the body and tripod. The body is then dumped in whatever nearby large body of water, such as a river or ocean, is convenient.

Presumably, the new method was chosen because firearms are socially unacceptable for even a professional assassin to use on TV. The process of rendering the victim kosher or halal is perhaps less objectionable.

The tools and objectives of the protagonist Holmes have also changed somewhat. The original Holmes frequently used two different weapons. Watson described his favorite as a heavy hunting crop, essentially a very long blackjack. However, he was not at all averse to bringing a revolver along on his adventures or keeping one close at hand in his sitting room. An aspect of Holmes’ behavior that was not appreciated by his landlady was his habit of periodically taking revolver practice in his sitting room.

He, aided by Dr. Watson, killed the Hound of Baskervilles with his revolver. Holmes checked that Watson was carrying his revolver in numerous adventures. In some cases, Holmes even directed it.

Very well. And, I say, doctor, there may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket.

In the course of capturing Colonel Moran, Watson described the situation thusly: “I struck him on the head with the butt of my revolver, and he dropped again on the floor.”

Moran capture

Nor was Holmes reluctant to threaten using a handgun to gain compliance, “I clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable.”

sherlock pistol

In the series Elementary, both Holmes and Dr. Watson eschew firearms in favor of collapsible batons. This might be explained away that they are not sworn members of the NYPD. However, it is unlikely they have any more authority to carry a baton than a handgun in New York City. Perhaps Captain Gregson has given them unofficial special dispensation.

In addition to the tools used, Holmes’ values have changed in a century. Doyle’s Holmes went to extraordinary lengths to capture Colonel Moran for trial. This despite the fact that Moran had attempted to murder Holmes three years previously and was in the act of attempting to assassinate him when he was taken into custody.

By contrast, when Sherlock of Elementary realizes his nemesis ‘M’ is in New York, he blatantly tells Dr. Watson:

I have no intention of capturing M [for the authorities]. I have every intention of torturing and murdering him.

Sherlock does catch M and kidnaps him, taking him to an unused family property where he shackles M to a frame in preparation for his torture and murder. In the course of their repartee, and after a short beating, M reveals himself to be Sebastian Moran, an assassin in the employ of Moriarty. It is also revealed that M was in prison when Irene Adler was murdered. At this point Sherlock relents about the torture and murder but stabs Moran in such a way that no vital organs are hit. When Moran is turned over to the police, he confesses to his murders and insists that his injuries are the result of self-defense by Sherlock.

The assassin becomes both grislier and more sympathetic. The hero treads water in the role of anti-hero, even perhaps villain. Times change.

3 responses

  1. Thank you Claude for the belly laugh (kosher and halal…) that sprayed expensive coffee everywhere in this chic boutique I’m celebrating my 62d year of survival. More please — erudite wit is in short supply in the Error-net!

  2. “Times change”, but not for the better. The original Holmes and Watson were “heroes of our civilization”. Apparently the people who make television today are uncomfortable with that idea.

  3. For another take on the story, read Flashman and the Tiger, part of my very favorite series of historical fiction.

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