Hats off to Steven Moffat. For a second time in a short while, he has come up with a villain who makes my flesh creep - and not in a good way. While watching the last episode of the (excellent) series 3 of Sherlock, I was disturbed to find that my reaction to the modern-day equivalent of Conan Doyle's Master Blackmailer - called Charles Augustus Magnussen instead of Milverton (he's a Dane) - was a deeply conventional "yuck!".
Yet I had no such problems with the original. Charles Augustus Milverton - the villain in the Sherlock Holmes adventure of the same name - undoubtedly comes high up on the list of fictional characters you wouldn't want to meet in real life. A blackmailer who can hold on to a secret until just the moment when it can do most damage; who charges so much there's no comfortable way of paying him off; and who, if he doesn't get the loot, will make a show of your misery, so as to encourage other victims to pay up - one shudders to think. You do not need to have lived a very blameworthy life in order to become trapped by a man like that. At the same time, while I understood Holmes's revulsion, I didn't feel it myself. My view of the smiling, deceptively Pickwickian-seeming Milverton was not "yuck" but "mmm, different". He's not one of those baddies I've developed a serious crush on; I do not fool myself into believing that he has a wounded soul or could be redeemed by love. But he is interesting, and I did raise my eyebrows a bit when Holmes decided to let one of his victims murder him and get away with it.
The Charles Augustus Milverton story has another point of interest, apart from its title character, and that's the dodgy way everyone, even Holmes - especially Holmes - behaves in it. The society beauty Holmes and Watson are representing may be a poor innocent, if her "sprightly" letters to an "impecunious young squire" were written long before she met her noble, eligible fiancé. But were they? Milverton's murderer is an adulteress who claims that Milverton's revelations about her affair killed her husband. One cannot help feeling, though, that if her husband's "gallant heart" was broken because his wife betrayed him, it was not entirely the fault of the blackmailer who told him. As for Holmes, he masquerades as a plumber and gets engaged to Milverton's housemaid, merely in order to get information on how to burgle the house. The fact that he has a rival who will take care of the girl once her plumber vanishes into thin air doesn't really make up for the heartlessness of Holmes's plan - besides being exactly the kind of gambit a Fagin associate would have used. It's as if Milverton corrupts even his enemies: no fight with him, if it can have a hope of being successful, can be fair.
So much for Milverton. What then of Magnussen, and why doesn't he earn the Georgiana seal of villain approval? Just look at him. Shark-like - check. "Dead eyes" - check. Power-hungry - check. Extremely clever - check. Able to annihilate opponents in word skirmishes - check. What's more, he's played mesmerisingly by the Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen. And yet, unlike with his namesake, I sat there willing someone to kill him, and fast, before he caused any more damage.
Magnussen's M.O. is similar to Milverton's. In fact, of all the Sherlock episodes, this one was the one which most resembled an actual Sherlock Holmes story - until it went off on an enjoyable tangent of its own. Magnussen is a newspaper proprietor with an encyclopediac memory who can dig up some dirt on just about everyone - or someone they hold dear - and threaten to publish it in his rags. (Query: are newspaper proprietors the new villain black in English Drama? And is it entirely fair given that few of them, I imagine, are that involved in the scandalous stories their newspapers print? We don't see many wicked newspaper editors gambolling about: on the contrary, they heroically beat up brown-shirts in Munich.) This means he holds world governments in his hands. What he wants to do with all this power is unclear: what's all too clear is that he enjoys having it. Much more than the business-minded Milverton - who, unlike many blackmailers, fulfils his side of the bargain and hands over the guilty secret once it's been paid for - Magnussen is a power junkie.
But I'm usually partial to power junkies. So why not Magnussen? As so often, it's the details that do it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's not what a villain does that's important, it's how he does it. It's useless to say "I would never ever fall for a blackmailer" - well, it is if you're a villain-lover anyway - but blackmail remains one of the trickier things for a baddie to pull off. And Magnussen isn't in the business of making things easy for potential backers. In one of the first scenes, his mental notes of a hostile committee member contain the chilling words "Pressure point: Disabled daughter". Whoah. In most blackmail affairs there's some collateral damage but - hold on. A little later, he demonstrates the power he has over another, in herself incorruptible, committee member ("Pressure point: Husband") by licking her face. Urinating in Sherlock's fireplace doesn't win one any prizes in charm school either, but this was the detail that really gave Magnussen the "yuck" factor.
So, business man vs unreliable power tripper. Targeting people's own guilty secrets vs targeting their nearest and dearest. Somewhat dodgy victims and adversaries of the husband-cheating, possibly gold-digging, housemaid-heartbreaking kind vs effortlessly engaging enemies/victims (though to be fair, the modern Sherlock doesn't come out of it all smelling of roses either: there's even a version of the maid story included). Laughing in your prey's face vs literally licking it. On balance, I'd say that of the two Charles Augustuses, Magnussen is the one who most deserves being called "the worst man in London". Either that or I'm going soft.