31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 16: “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle

May 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes

Penguin_Complete_Sherlock_HolmesAs Ruth Rendell points out in the foreword to the single-volume edition of The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and stories did not constitute the first works of detective fiction – Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Godwin all predate them. But Rendell also notes that in Holmes, Conan Doyle had created “the first detective to be presented as personality, hero, and star.” Without Holmes, there would be no Poirot, no Father Brown, no Rebus, no Inspector Banks.

Nor would there be the ongoing cottage industry of movies, television shows, spinoffs, book clubs, and fan groups that continue to capitalize on Holmes’s legacy. From the Baker Street Irregulars to Basil Rathbone, from Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes continues to retain a strong hold on the popular imagination. In the genre of detective fiction, Conan Doyle is akin to Shakespeare.

The enduring popularity of his fictional detective was something that bothered the author during his own lifetime. Written as straightforward entertainments, the Sherlock Holmes stories were less substantial in the author’s eyes than his other writing, and the fanatical attention paid to the detective left the balance of Conan Doyle’s output languishing in relative obscurity. As Rendell writes:

[F]or Doyle the success of Sherlock Holmes obscured his more serious work and he called his stories a “lower stratum of literary achievement.” It was the old story of the popular entertainer who dreams of playing Hamlet. For Doyle’s literary historical novels were never very readable and are now largely forgotten, while the Holmes stories, which their author categorized as potboilers, are recognized as original works of genius.

Such recognition notwithstanding, Conan Doyle was quite right: the Sherlock Holmes stories are potboilers, replete with outrageous plots and sensational subject matter. It is also true that much of Conan Doyle’s other writing – Rendell rightly excepts his science fiction novel The Lost World – is virtually unreadable. In any event, popular fiction is popular for a reason: it allows its readers escape and adventure without placing serious intellectual or ideological demands on them.

Regardless, by 1894, Conan Doyle had had enough. That year, the author published Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which he clearly intended to be the terminal volume of fiction featuring his celebrated detective. The last story in that collection, “The Final Problem,” is among the author’s most famous – or, perhaps more accurately, infamous – for it is the story in which Conan Doyle apparently kills off Sherlock Holmes.

“The Final Problem” is equally famous for introducing Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, whose reputation as a Holmes antagonist far outstrips his actual importance in the Conan Doyle canon. The character is mentioned in only a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories, and has a driving role in only two: “The Final Problem” and the 1914 novel The Valley of Fear. Despite the relatively scanty number of pages Conan Doyle devoted to the professor, his status in Holmes mythology is assured, likely as a result of being the instrument of the detective’s putative demise.

Before Moriarty even appears in “The Final Problem,” Holmes has built him up to such a degree that the man seems almost superhuman. Holmes calls him “the Napoleon of crime” and says that he is “on a pinnacle in the records” of criminal malfeasance. Holmes suggests that in addition to being a towering intellect “endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” Moriarty is also a crime kingpin in London, directing from the shadows a vast army of underlings who do his bidding.

He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. If there is 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 organized and carried out.

There is a strain of hyperbole in all this that is frankly comical, but it is important for Holmes to recognize Moriarty’s ability and heightened intellect; anyone less capable would not be a match for the great detective. Conan Doyle realized that if someone were going to cause Holmes’s death, that someone would have to be at least his equal, both mentally and physically. Indeed, Moriarty is a kind of shrouded mirror image of Holmes – equally brilliant, but devious where Holmes is upright, and as devoted to committing crime as Holmes is to uncovering it.

It is also significant to note that the reader never actually encounters Moriarty directly. Everything we know about him is based on what Holmes tells his collaborator, Dr. Watson, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator. Watson claims to know “the absolute truth of the matter,” but this is not based on his own scientific observation, rather on a complete belief in the story as Holmes relates it to him. We have no reason to doubt this account – there is no reasonable way in which either Holmes or Watson could be considered an unreliable narrator – but the several levels of removal from the action make for an interesting narrative approach.

Also a canny one. Having Watson encounter the events of the story, as it were, at second-hand allows Conan Doyle an out with regard to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, which famously takes place at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. Watson is not present at the final moments during which Holmes and Moriarty apparently tumble to their deaths; he surmises what happened based on evidence he finds at the scene and a short note left by Holmes.

Perhaps Conan Doyle realized his audience would not allow him to dispatch his famous investigator so easily. Indeed, like the Jason Voorhees of classical detective fiction, Holmes arose from the dead several years later, in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” That story would become the first entry in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a volume that was likely as inevitable as it was incredible.

“The Final Problem” remains sui generis in the Holmes catalogue. It is not a story of ratiocination, but more closely resembles a chase narrative, with Holmes and Watson fleeing London for the continent to escape the clutches of the maniacal professor. There are outrageous moments – Holmes disguises himself as an aged Italian cleric to escape detection on a train – that lend credence to Conan Doyle’s assertion that these stories are little more than potboilers. Yet for being the one story in which Holmes and his bête noir go toe to toe (albeit offstage in the story itself), “The Final Problem” retains a central place in the history of Conan Doyle’s writing specifically, and detective fiction in general.

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