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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-03-25 02:29
Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Final Problem
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection - Arthur Conan Doyle,Stephen Fry

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished. In an incoherent and, as I deeply feel, an entirely inadequate fashion, I have endeavored to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the “Study in Scarlet,” up to the time of his interference in the matter of the “Naval Treaty”--an interference which had the unquestionable effect of preventing a serious international complication. It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill.

The Final Problem was published in 1893 and was meant to be ACD's last Holmes story. The author had grown tired of the Consulting Detective taking up all of his focus as a professional author, and tried to free up his time and his mind for more worthy projects. 

At least, ACD created a fitting final appearance for Holmes. He goes out in style. 


The Final Problem is a tough story to review. It's a story that hits home hard for any fan of the series, not just because of the ending, but also because we see Holmes pushed to the edge. He's showing cracks - Watson notices his looking run down. He's been beaten up, and Holmes himself remarks upon his mental state:

“Yes, I have been using myself up rather too freely,” he remarked, in answer to my look rather than to my words; “I have been a little pressed of late. Have you any objection to my closing your shutters?”

The reason for this is that Holmes has met his match. 

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. 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 center 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. 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 organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught--never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up."

In trying to expose Professor Moriarty, Holmes exhausts himself bringing down his organisation bit by bit, and at the same Holmes time is being hunted.



The final problem arises while Holmes and Watson are seeking respite in Switzerland. They are pursued even there, and the hunt is forced to its crisis at the now famous Reichenbach Falls: 

It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamor. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.


And then all that Watson is left with, all the we are left with, is one of the most gut-wrenching letters in literary history:

"I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you."

That letter gets me every time. ACD could hardly have chosen a more dramatic ending to the series at the high time of Holmes' success.

How shocking it must have been to read this story as a follower of the series at the time it was written, at a time when this really did seem like the end for Holmes and Watson.

Of course, we now know that there are more stories, but at the time, the public reaction to this story was so strong that ACD was eventually persuaded to continue the series after all. 


But what about the story itself?


Apart from the high drama and the ultimate proof of the friendship between Holmes and Watson, and incidentally, the reassurance that Holmes, contrary to popular belief, does care about the other people in his life - including Mary Watson, there is another aspect of The Final Problem that I always ponder on. It is this one, the first ever meeting between Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty: 

“‘ You evidently don’t know me,’ said he. 
“‘ On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’ 
“‘ All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he. 
“‘ Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied. 
“‘ You stand fast?’ 
“‘ Absolutely.’
To me this is one of the most beautiful depictions of the duality of the human mind/spirit/whatever. It's the Jekyll/Hide, the ultimate light/dark side stand-off, and it is happening in a sitting room. While the focus of this story is often described as the altercation at the Reichenbach Falls, the more interesting challenge is fought at the first face off where Holmes and Moriarty could almost be two sides of the same coin - they would even complete each other's sentences except they don't even need to exchange statements at all because they already know what the other is thinking!
To me this is one of the great scenes in the canon.
I also love that he chose the Reichenbach Falls as the setting. However, it is a choice of location that in my reading may also carry a more personal connection for the author.
I'll need to resort to another ACD biography for back-up but from the horrible one I finished last week (Andrew Norman's Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes) it appears that the trip to Switzerland was an ad hoc trip on account of his wife having been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Like so many other sufferers, they believed that the Alpine air was a cure for the illness, and they stayed for quite some time (I believe she also returned there), but to no avail. She eventually died from tuberculosis a few years later.
So when reading this story, I was wondering of course if ACD, with his medical knowledge, had some inkling about whether his wife would recover.
No antibiotics at the time meant that 50-60% of TB patients died within 5 years.  

In many ways, The Final Problem is one of the saddest stories in the canon but also one of the most beautiful because it shows off so much about the human side of the characters, their friendship, their failings, their vulnerability. Of all of the stories, this one haunts the fictional world of 221 Baker Street like no other. 


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review 2018-03-22 17:43
Didn't Love it, Didn't Hate it
The Sign of the Four - Arthur Conan Doyle

I don't see me re-reading this in the future. It's not a bad book, just not compelling. Reading about Holmes going in deep with his cocaine addiction is not interesting. And Watson hoping the case they are looking into keeps Holmes engaged is not that interesting either. If anything, I would say this book was just a big step towards Watson's development of a character (he meets the woman who is to become his wife).


"The Sign of the Four" has a woman (Mary Morstan) coming to Holmes and Watson in order to find out why someone keeps sending her a pearl on the anniversary of her father's disappearance.  Holmes agrees to take the case with he and Watson trying to track down what everything means. 


I have to say though that there is so much coincidence in this book it was a little hard to swallow. Also there are just random things inserted in this story...one word, crocodile. I started to wonder if Doyle was on cocaine when writing this story. 


We find out what happened to Mary's father, but I thought the whole thing sounded beyond hinky. And then from there we get to a young man who is behind sending Mary the pearls. I did want to go though really you decided in the end to send this woman a pearl a freaking year? Anyway, I could be here all day pointing out the weirdness and strange happenings in this story that defy common sense. 


I can't say much about Holmes beyond his views on women are appalling (and normal for the time I would say) and him being on cocaine made me wonder how he could even complete deductions at all. It sounds sickly based on Watson's description of him in the book. 

Watson seems a bit fed up at times with Holmes, but keeps hanging in there.

There's also a dog in this story (Toby) that made me think of the Agatha Christie book (Dumb Witness) which made me wish I was reading an Agatha Christie book. 


The writing was okay, but the flow was off through the whole book.


Some lines in the book though made me go, how did we go from brilliant amateur detective in "A Study in Scarlet" to this I am so into cocaine person we get in "The Sign of the Four."


"Which is it to-day?" I asked,—"morphine or cocaine?" He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. "It is cocaine," he said,—"a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?" "No, indeed," I answered, brusquely. "My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet. I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it."


Gee. If someone I was living with was all here is some cocaine I would be out of there. Also is 7 percent a good thing or what? I am not a coke head so I don't know.


"None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth."

By the way most of this book is Sherlock being a total pill. 


"The division seems rather unfair," I remarked. "You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?" "For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine-bottle." And he stretched his long white hand up for it.



The setting of the book goes from England to India and I didn't get much a sense about India when we get bogged down with a re-telling of what went down with some of the characters we heard about earlier in the story. 


I just found myself getting bored and when we get to the ending where all is revealed via dialogue. I was just glad to be done. What a weird story in the adventures of Holmes and Watson. 

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text 2018-03-22 16:25
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
The Sign of the Four - Arthur Conan Doyle

I don't know if I liked this or not LOL. Sherlock is taking cocaine and flailing about trying to solve the mystery of some hidden treasure. I wasn't bored while reading, just not fully engaged really though. Watson seemed to be a bit over Holmes at time, and even I would have had it with the cocaine, constant walking back and forth, etc. 


It is pretty cool to see Watson and the woman who ends up becoming his wife though. 

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text 2018-03-19 20:29
Reading progress update: I've read 29%.
The Sign of the Four - Arthur Conan Doyle

Started with "Sign of the Four" cause I am at work running from meeting to meeting and think people may get scared if I pull out my paperback copy of "The Dark Half."

This is good though I keep forgetting Sherlock being a coke head was a thing. I am still shocked at how he is acting. The case that Sherlock and Watson are looking into sounds interesting (I always love stolen treasure story-lines in detective novels). 

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review 2018-03-18 13:49
Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Norman's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those books that got off to a rocky start with me and I should have DNF'd after the Preface. 


However, I wanted to know how preposterous the book could actually get, or, ever so hopeful, if the premise set forth in the Preface was just an unlucky and sensationalist choice of "bait" that would be abandoned in the course of Norman's investigation of ACD's life. 


As I don't want to string anyone along, the book did not improve after page 11, which is where the Preface ended. In fact, if anything it got worse. So, if you plan to read on this short collection of thoughts about Norman's biography of ACD, you're in for a bit of a rant.


To recap, the Preface of the book seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in such ridiculous concepts as spiritualism and fairies, and the last paragraph of the Preface suggested that Norman's conclusion was that Doyle must have suffered from a mental illness:

Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This was the in Preface! I don't know about other readers, but unless I am reading an academic text where the expectation is that the conclusion is summarised in the prefacing abstract, I am not looking to have the author's assumptions stated as facts on page 11 (!) of what I would hope to be a gripping biography of an extraordinary personality. 


Strike 1!


Next we get two (yes, TWO!) short chapters on Doyle's childhood, which are mostly pre-occupied with his the difficulties that his family had to cope with - mostly his father's alcoholism. There is, in fact, little about young Arthur in these chapters.


Following this we get no less than ten (TEN!) chapters about Sherlock Holmes. Not just about the writing and publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories but actual interpretation of Sherlock as a character - all substantiated with apparently randomly selected quotes from the different stories. 


Seriously? A book that carries the subtitle of "Beyond Sherlock Holmes" should not focus on the one topic that the subtitle seems to exclude. What is more, there are only 25 chapters in this book in total. Norman has spent 10 of them on Holmes. That is preposterous. 


Strike 2!


Luckily, we get back to ACD after this with a brief run down of his involvement in actual criminal cases, where he managed to prove vital in overturning two miscarriages of justice, and his work and life during and after the First World War. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing new or detailed in this, and the focus and ACD is superficial. Norman uses these chapters to write about ACD's father's illness and time in various mental institutions, surmising at what kind of psychiatric condition he suffered from. This, however, can only be guesswork on Norman's part. Charles Conan Doyle was hospitalised privately. There are few actual medical records. What is more,even if there had been medical records, the areas of psychiatry and medical treatment of addiction or mental illness in the 1890s was still in its infancy. The recording and diagnosis of cases of people who had been hospitalised or committed can hardly be described as reliable. And yet, Norman, with the help of The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (by Michael Gelder, Paul Harrison, and Philip Cohen) dares to presume to make a diagnosis of what illness may have plagued Charles Conan Doyle, and has the audacity to infer that Arthur Conan Doyle may have inherited the same potential for mental illness because in one of his works he wrote that he knew, rather than believed, that fairies existed!


What utter, utter rubbish!


And, btw, I kid you not, but the The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry is referenced throughout the relevant chapters as the ONLY source to back-up Norman's ideas.




Never mind that spiritualism was an actual thing in the early 1900s and that ACD was not alone in believing in fairies and magic and the paranormal. Instead of investigating ACD's interest, Norman's work in this book is not just superficial but outright lazy. He simply regurgitates the same outrage and disbelief over how a man of sound mind can belive in something fantastic. With this book, Norman simply jumps on the gravy train of sensationalism and continues an outcry over the notion that an author of fiction may have believed in something other than hard facts.


I can't even...


Fuck this book. (Note: This is Strike 3!)


Seriously, I have no idea what Norman's other books are like, but he seems to have written several other biographies featuring Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Robert Mugabe (seriously???), and others. 


None of which will ever end up on my reading list.


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