Doyle’s creation, Charles Augustus Milverton, is a particularly unpleasant sort. When Holmes’s client, Lady Eva Blackwell, employs him to wrest some sensitive correspondence from the greedy hands of a blackmailer, the detective is appalled to find that the callous, amoral Milverton will not accept the money he’s offered to buy back his ill-gotten hoard. He’s determined to ruin the woman’s reputation once and for all. Holmes, in one of his more elaborate schemes, hatches a plan to infiltrate the Milverton household. Taking his disguise as a plumber to something of an extreme, he manages to get himself engaged to Milverton’s housemaid, all to learn as much as he can of the blackmailer’s movements. Holmes and Watson plan to carry out a daring burglary in order to relieve Milverton of his prize.
However, another unhappy victim has other ideas. On the night of the attempted robbery, Holmes and Watson end up being witnesses, rather than perpetrators, of a crime. Milverton has a late-night meeting with someone who has a pretty big score to settle, someone determined to ensure that Milverton will ruin no more lives…
The tale of the cold-hearted blackmailer has captured the imagination of most of those with the complex task of adapting Doyle’s villains for the screen. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes faced a largely faithful interpretation of the seedy Milverton, played by Robert Hardy. More recently, we’ve seen an ingenious take on the story from CBS’s Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock encounters Milverton when the family of a rape victim is threatened by the lowlife, whose scheme is to protect himself by warning that his accomplice will disseminate the offending evidence if Milverton should be arrested. As the young woman’s family is acquainted with Holmes’s trusted addiction sponsor, the kindly detective agrees to take the case. However, when events stay true to Doyle’s original case, Holmes and Watson find themselves in a race against time to track down Milverton’s right-hand man and settle the matter once and for all. As ever with Elementary, the source material is broken right down until only the bare bones remain, leaving us with a typically loose adaptation; the approach here is light years away from Sherlock’s, yet works brilliantly. Purists can quibble, but the point of adaptations is to… well, adapt. And Elementary’s Milverton is skilfully remodelled into a creature of his time and place, hunched over his computer as he waits for another innocent victim to hound to distraction.
If Moffat and Gatiss take the same approach that’s worked for them in the past, we can expect a Milverton – sorry, Magnussen- who shares many nasty traits with his nineteenth-century model, while adding a few of his own. The poison pen will doubtless have been replaced with vicious tweets or, if he’s feeling particularly retro, threatening e-mails. Or maybe he’ll be an especially cruel gossip columnist with scurrilous allegations as his speciality? Given that Irene Adler’s already stirred up high society, will Magnussen target the grubbier end of the tabloid spectrum? It’ll be fascinating to see how Sherlock reinterprets this very different villain.