“The Final Problem” Or, hope you’ve got your handkerchief ready, Watson!

“The Final Problem” was published in December 1893 and takes place Friday, April 24 to Monday, May 4, 1891.

My organizational skills seem to have deserted me. Continue at the risk of your own sanity!

What a way to start your story, Watson! Seriously, it must have been like if the last Harry Potter book started off ‘Harry Potter was dead, to begin with.’ And people didn’t know it was coming either! No internet to leak things, you know. They must have sat down thinking ‘Oh, yay, it’s time for a new story about Sher–WHAT THE WHAT?! HE’S DEAD?!’ According to Leslie, the death of Sherlock Holmes ‘stunned the British public, cost the Strand Magazine twenty thousand subscribers, and led to an outbreak of black armbands’ (NA, 713).

But wait. Take another look at those dates – it takes place in 1891, but Watson didn’t publish it until 1893. Holmes has been dead for two years. Bert Coules, the director of the most recent BBC radio productions of Sherlock Holmes (and OMG, they are completely and utterly awesome), points out that ‘the reporting of the death of a figure as famous as Holmes should have raised a massive public outcry. Yet until now, there was none, leading one to wonder whether those other accounts somehow came to the conclusion that Holmes was still alive. Coules theorises that perhaps Watson engineered some sort of media cover-up regarding Holmes’ death; after all, “the tone of the opening and closing of the piece is certainly in keeping with the initial breaking of devastating news, rather than the amplifying of already-known facts”‘ (NA, 714). I like the idea that Watson had enough power and influence to be able to pull something like this off. I have a harder time thinking of a good reason for him to do it – frankly, the only thing I can come up with is that he thought it would keep London’s criminals at bay (out of fear of Holmes) for a bit longer. But Moran was aware of the truth and I would have expected that the criminal factor of London knew what had really happened long before Watson did. (I’m purposefully trying to be a little bit vague here just in case…)

Okay, remember when Moriarty comes to visit Holmes at 221B (pretty ballsy move, if you ask me) and he’s all ‘Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?’ Well, ‘David Merrel makes the startling suggestion that Holmes actually pulled the trigger, immediately killing Moriarty, and that the rest of his tale is a “cover-up,” indulged in by brother Mycroft, for the purpose of preserving his reputation’ (NA, 722). Part of me wants to say that someone has been watching a little too much Star Wars here, but the other part of me really quite likes this idea. Who’s to say that Holmes, who was not legendary for his faith in Scotland Yard, decided to take matters into his own hands (and some Holmesians assert that he did just that, only in a much more roundabout fashion) and take care of the problem when it was served up to him on a silver platter.

Remember I also said that Ronald Knox thinks Mycroft is working for Moriarty? Well, it sounds to me like he’s a double agent – though which one of them he’s actually working for, I can’t tell. Leslie says that Knox believes that Mycroft is ‘working for Moriarty while feeding information to his brother. It is clear . . . that someone leaked information from Holmes’ camp to the professor, and he accuses Mycroft of being the “mole.”‘ Don’t get too concerned, though, Knox also believes that ‘Holmes knew of his brother’s deceptions and boldly risked relying on him, concealing from Watson Mycroft’s equivocal part’ (NA, 731). So I guess that sounds like Mycroft really is a baddie. Seems to me that it takes quite a lot of energy to be a double agnet, though, so I think either Mycroft somehow became indebted to Moriarty and had no choice or maybe Mycroft is really the brains behind Moriarty, manipulating him into doing his bidding. Though it’s hard to take Flipperman seriously.

The movie has me trained too well:

‘Have you seen the morning paper, Watson?’


‘You haven’t seen about Baker Street, then?’

‘Baker Street?’

‘They set fire to our rooms last night. No great harm was done.’

Your rooms. Good heavens, Holmes, this is intolerable!’

Our rooms. They must have lost my track completely after their bludgeonman was arrested.’ (NA, 730)

I think we’ve stumbled across a Holmesian version of Mean Girls here! Like Moriarty follows Holmes across Europe and into Switzerland, Leslie follows poor, hapless Michael Kaser through their timetable. I swear, there are about three half-page notes about when Holmes and Watson left one place and arrived at another and each one starts off ”Michael Kaser erroneously concludes…’ Well, if he’s wrong, why do you keep including him in the discussion? Let it go, Leslie!

Speaking of which, do you want to see the cutest thing ever? It’s Dr. Julian Wolff’s map of “Operation Reichenbach.”

Wanna hear something heartbreaking? Watson got lost on his way back to Reichenbach. He says that ‘for all [his] efforts, two more [hours] had passed before I found myself at the fall of Reichenbach once more’ (NA, 740). According to Leslie, Baedaker states that, from the Hotel Reichenbach in Meiringen, it is only a quarter-hour walk to the upper falls, concluding that Watson must have gotten lost on his unguided return but was embarrassed to say so (NA, 740). I think heartbroken is the better adjective here, Leslie. What if he had managed to return in the 15 minutes it should have taken him. Would he have interrupted or even prevented Holmes’ deadly confrontation with Moriarty?

Pope R. Hill, Sr. points out that ‘”the crowning absurdity in the published account is shown by the tracks. On the three-foot ledge, Holmes is supposed to have walked with his back to Moriarty. This would have meant certain death for Holmes, with absolutely no chance for him to bring about the death of Moriarty… If Holmes had backed away from Moriarty, one set of tracks would be pointing forward and the other backward. Both sets were said to lead in the same direction toward the end of the path which meant one man was walking in front of the other with his back turned. Neither man would have walked in front of the other like that, for it would have meant his certain death and the escape of his opponent”‘ (BG, 316). Frankly, I’m with Hill here, but other Holmesians cite the many instances of good sportsmanship that occurs in their confrontation as proof that gentlemanly rules were in effect here: Holmes’ note that Moriarty allowed him to leave for Watson, Holmes’ alpenstock that he left on the trail rather than taking with him despite being an expert singlestick player and swordsman, and Moriarty’s lack of a weapon when he could easily have surprised Holmes (though I’d like to point out that he did leave a back-up plan in place which hardly seems sporting of him).

Which brings us to Moriarty. To begin, just a quick, interesting note: ‘Professor Moriarty’s Christian name is never given in “The Final Problem,” although in “The Empty House” Holmes calls the professor James Moriarty, curiously the same name as his brother’s’ (NA, 714).

He is one devious bastard, by the way (though I guess that’s to be expected when you’re the Napoleon of Crime – kind of in your job description, I’d say). When Moriarty just misses Holmes and Watson’s first train, Eustace Portugal ‘contends that Moriarty deliberately missed the train in order to lull Holmes into a false sense of security’ (NA, 731). But we can forgive him that one since theories abound that Holmes was not trying to outrun Moriarty but to lure him to Switzerland for a face-to-face confrontation. But you know what I don’t think we can forgive? Playing on Watson’s dying wife’s health to get him back to the hotel and away from Holmes. Mary Morstan’s health is iffy at this time and it’s widely accepted that she eventually died from consumption. So what does Moriarty do but send a letter from a lady similarly afflected! How could Watson refuse! ‘”The genius of Moriarty is here revealed that he chose the surest way of decoying Watson away from Holmes, knowing from his dossier on Watson that Mrs. Watson was herself a consumptive in an advanced stage”‘ (NA, 738).

So many theories, so little time and so I present, a summation (NA, 746-748):

  • Moriarty is imaginary. These are always my favorites, I think, and I’m going to have a hard time not just copying the entire section from Leslie’s appendix here.
    • Benjamin S. Clark–‘Holmes staged the entire affair to obtain a three-year rest-cure for his drug addiction.’
    • Irving L. Jaffee–‘Holmes imagined Moriarty and travelled to the falls bent on suicide.’
    • A.G. MacDonnell–‘Moriarty was invented by Holmes to explain his lack of success in an increasing number of cases; Holmes’ ego would not allow him to admit that ordinary criminals had outsmarted him, so he invented a master criminal.’
    • Bruce Kennedy–‘Holmes made up the entire story to take a three-year vacation’ or ‘Watson made up the entire story, at the request of Colonel James Moriarty, to memorialize his brother, who died saving Holmes’ life.’ [I’m not sure being immortalized as a criminal mastermind is really the right way to accomplish this, though…]
    • Jerry Neal Williamson–‘Professor James “Moriarty” was in fact Professor James Holmes, an elder brother of Sherlock’s, a younger brother of Mycroft’s. “The flight from England must have been made to give James a chance to escape with his life. . . . Acting as a decoy, Sherlock Holmes ‘fled,’ vanished, and lived on the funds of his honest brother [Mycroft] until the gang was gone and James was a free but broken man.”‘
    • Frederick J. Crosson–‘Holmes invented the story of Moriarty as a cover-up for a secret diplomatic mission he needed to undertake.’
    • T.F. Foss–‘The Holmes brothers and Watson made up the story to provide a foil for Holmes.’ [Does he mean Holmes was in on it or is he talking about Sherrinford (I always forget if he really exists or if he’s an old-school fandom creation…)]
  • Moriarty is innocent.
    • Daniel Moriarty (!) [That’s Leslie’s quotation mark, not mine!]–‘Moriarty was persecuted by Holmes as revenge for Holmes’ being forbidden to woo Moriarty’s daughter.’
    • Nicholas Meyer–‘Moriarty was ‘Holmes’ childhood tutor, the seducer of Holmes’ mother, upon whom Holmes projects a fantasy of criminality.’
    • Mary Jaffee–Moriarty was just a random dude who happened to be on Reichenbach Falls when a coked-up Holmes freaked the hell out and threw him over the ledge.
  • Moriarty lives.
    • Eustace Portugal–‘Holmes died at the falls and Moriarty took his place.’ [Though how he got around Watson, I’ll never know…]
    • Auberon Redfearn–‘Moriarty escaped death because his black cloak (Watson notices only a “black figure,” but a black cape or cloak is standard garb for villains) acted as a parachute until it caught on a branch on Moran was able to rescue him.’
    • Roger Mortimore–‘Holmes killed the wrong man at the Reichenbach Falls and Moriarty took on a new identity–Colonel Sebastian Moran.’ [Didn’t do him much good, did it?]
    • Jason Rouby–‘Holmes let Moriarty go and Moriarty subsequently achieved moral rehabilitation and, assuming the name J. Edgar Hoover, pursued a career in law enforcement in the United States.’
    • C. Arnold Johnson–‘Moriarty returned to London as Fu Manchu.’
    • William Leonard–‘Moriarty was in fact […Wait for it…] Count Dracula (!) [That exclamation mark is all mine!] and thus survived the fall.’
    • Robert Pasley and Rev. Wayne Wall–‘Moriarty was the Devil incarnate and thus could not be killed.’
  • Holmes is guilty.
    • Walter P. Armstrong, Jr., W.S. Bristowe, and Gordon R. Speck–‘Neither Holmes nor Watson was fooled by Moriarty’s note and Holmes had anticipated a confrontation and took comfort in his knowledge of Baritsu.’
    • Albert and Myrna Silverstein–‘Because Holmes could not obtain sufficient evidence to convict Moriarty, he enticed Moriarty to follow him to the falls for the express purpose of killing him. [I kind of like this one…]
  • The wrong person was killed.
    • Larry Waggoner–‘It was only a relative, a cousin or brother, of Moriarty who was thrown into the cauldron.’
    • Marvin Grasse–‘Watson and Mycroft dumped Holmes himself into the Reichenbach Falls.’
    • Tony Medawar–‘Watson did it alone after Moriarty failed.’ [Ooh, chalk another one up to dark!Watson.]
    • Page Heldenbrand–‘Holmes had a tryst at the falls with Irene Adler and she fell into the falls, perhaps committing suicide.’
  • Holmes really did die at Reichenbach.
    • Anthony Boucher–‘After Holmes’ death, Mycroft replaced him with his cousin “Sherrinford.”‘
    • Monsignor Ronald A. Knox–‘The entire post-Reichenbach Canon was made up by Watson, to supplement his income.’
  • Moriarty had crazy – and I mean CRAZY – technology with him that may or may not have backfired.
    • On the question of why neither Holmes’ nor Moriarty’s bodies were found (while it’s true that the Reichenbach falls are very violent, according to the Holmesians, a short way downstream, things become much calmer – and also the Swiss would have had quite a bit of experience at dragging the post-falls stream for bodies [How gruesome, Holmesians!]), A. Carson Simpson, batting for the D. Martin Dakin team, believes Moriarty, at least, was never found ‘because he had developed an Atomic Accelerator, a weapon more terrible than the atomic or hydrogen bomb, which he turned upon himself as a last resort’ (BG, 318).
    • Taking issue with this theory is Poul Anderson himself, who points out that ‘in order to accelerate mass, and so shrink it, energy must be applied. A shrinkage of one-half through velocity would require an energy equivalent to the original mass. Thus, to reduce, let us say, a 6-foot, 170-pound man to three feet, an energy of 170 pounds must be applied. Now a mass of one gram is equivalent to 9 x 1020 ergs, sufficient to raise a 30,000-ton ship more than 19 miles into the air. Mass-energy to the amount of 170 pounds, necessarily applied to Moriarty’s body through the law of equal and opposite reaction, would not only have destroyed the Reichenbach Falls in one annihilating blow but probably would hav eleft a large hole in place of the entire Republic of Switzerland. Mr. Simpson[‘s theory] goes yet further: postulating that objects [i.e., Moriarty’s body] were shrunk to nearly zero size. In order to do this, Moriarty would have to convert the entire sidereal universe into energy, a project somewhat too large even for his ambitious nature’ (BG, 318).
    • No, I totally stopped reading about one bullet point ago, too, but I just wanted you to see to what lengths the Holmesians will go!
  • Moriarty is really two young children who–well, you know my favorite theory, right?! 😉

Leslie makes a rather heartless comment here – in Holmes’ note to Watson, he writes ‘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 a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you.’ To which Leslie snarks, ‘What friends? In “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes says to Watson, “Except for yourself I have none” (NA, 742). Really, Leslie? Is now the right time to bring that up?

ACD ranked “The Final Problem” at number 4 on his list of favorites.

But I have saved the best for last. Remember a few stories ago, when I mentioned that Nathan Bengis was now on my shortlist of Holmesians? Here’s why. ‘In the London Mystery Magazine for June 1955, a document purporting to be the last will and testament of Mr. Sherlock Holmes was reproduced in facsimile, with a prefatory note, unsigned, ascribing the discovery of the paper to Mr. Nathan L. Bengis, Keep of the Crown of the Musgrave Ritualists of New York’ (BG, 317). Want to know what it said? Trust me, you do:

I give and bequeath unto my devoted friend and associate, Dr. John H. Watson, often tried, sometimes trying, but never found wanting in loyalty; my well-intentioned though unavailing mentor against the blandishments of vice, my indispensable foil and whetstone; the perfect sop to my wounded vanity and too tactful to whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear when necessary; the ideal listener and the audience par excellence for those little tricks which others more discerning might well have deemed meretricious; the faithful Boswell to whose literary efforts – despite my occasional unkindly gibes – I owe whatever little fame I have enjoyed; in short, to the one true friend I have ever had, the sum of 5,000 pounds; also the choice of any books in my personal library (with such reservations as are mentioned below), including my commonplace books and the complete file of my cases, published and unpublished, with the sole exception of the papers in pigeonhole ‘M,’ contained in a blue envelope and marked ‘Moriarty’ which the proper authorities will take over in the event my demise should make it impossible for me to hand them over in person.

To George Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, my gilt-edged German dictionary, in the hope he will find it useful should he again see the handwriting of Miss Rachel on the wall.

To Tobias Gregson, ditto, my leatherbound Hafiz, the study of whose poetry may supply a dash of that imagination so necessary to the ideal reasoner.

To the authorities of Scotland Yard, one copy of each of my trifling monographs on crime detective, unless happily they shall feel they have outgrown the need for the elementary suggestions of an amateur detective.

To my good brother, Mycroft Holmes, the remainder and residue of my estate, which he will be agreeably surprised to find, even after the foregoing bequests, to be not inconsiderable, and which will enable him, I hope, to take a much needed holiday from governmental works to surroundings more congenial than those of the Diogenes Club; in the expctation that he will remain celibate for the rest of his natural life–and unnatural too, for that matter.

Sherlock Holmes


So! Wipe that tear from your eye and join me next week for “The Empty House”!

*Most of my notes, I think, come from the New Annotated simply because I find its format easier to work through and it is, therefore, the version that I’m reading first (I’m only reading the notes in the Baring-Gould). Much of the information is doubled up, but there is some that is unique to either volume, so if you see NA, that’s the Baring-Gould edition and BG is the New Annotated. No, I’m totally kidding – it’s the other way (the logical way) round.


2 thoughts on ““The Final Problem” Or, hope you’ve got your handkerchief ready, Watson!

    • I assume you’re referring to Moriarty’s moment in Sherlock? I KNOW! I mean, we all know it’s what canon!Moriarty wants to say and then Jim went ahead and said it (because he’s awesome like that). 😀

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