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?’
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.