T.S. Eliot’s most successful feline—the depraved Macavity in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—is well known as a straight lift from Professor Moriarty, the saturnine villain in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem”:
He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city…. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organised and carried out…. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected…. [He] is, I dare say, working out problems on a blackboard ten miles away.
Thus Sherlock Holmes, in portentous form. And thus Eliot, making sport of him:
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair—
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!
And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray
Or the Admiralty loses some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!”—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.
Having in passing satirized the plots of two other Holmesian escapades, Eliot closes by saying that there are other foul toms in London but that they
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
This is all in jest, but see how Eliot phrases a grave moment in his Murder in the Cathedral. A “tempter” has been sent from King Henry to Thomas Becket, offering him secular power in exchange for an acknowledgment of royal supremacy over the Church. Becket engages the emissary in a cryptic exchange of call and response:
“Who shall have it?”
“He who will come.”
“What shall be the month?”
“The last from the first.”
“What shall we give for it?”
“Pretense of priestly power.”
In an early Sherlock Holmes case, entitled “The Musgrave Ritual,” a piece of mysterious doggerel holds the clue:
Whose is it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come.
What was the month?
The sixth from the first.
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours.
Since the subject of Murder in the Cathedral is the martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the occult or arcane topic of “The Musgrave Ritual” is the retrieval of the crown of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.