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by Scott Culpepper
Arthur Conan Doyle was done. In December 1893, he finally disposed of the burden that had dogged him since 1888. Ironically, that perceived burden was also the means of his economic success and growing fame.
Sherlock Holmes had become odious to his creator and therefore Sherlock must go. Despite the ravenous appetite of a growing reading public, Arthur Conan Doyle decided to dump his famous detective in the swirling waters at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls near Meiringen, Switzerland in The Final Problem.
The Final Problem was an unusual Holmes story. There was no puzzle or mystery involved. Most of the story involved Holmes and Watson traveling across Europe to elude the vengeance of Professor James Moriarty. Today’s viewers of Sherlock or Elementary who are not familiar with the Holmes literary canon might be surprised to learn that Moriarty was created solely for the purpose of offering an antagonist worthy of Holmes’ final case.
Moriarty only appeared in The Final Problem (1893), Holmes’ account of his own survival in The Empty House (1903), and as the unseen orchestrator of events in The Valley of Fear (1914). Fans of subsequent Holmes books, movies, and television series who have enjoyed the intellectual rapier thrusts exchanged between the legendary consulting detective and the “Napoleon of Crime” are indebted to Doyle’s frustration with Holmes for the creation of his brilliant opposite.
For those of us who love history and love to write, the drama behind the story is often as compelling as what unfolds on the page or screen. Doyle had filled the empty hours of his struggling medical practice with the composition of his Sherlock Holmes tales. These stories brought him success and public recognition.
They eventually came to frustrate Doyle as he began to feel that the persistent deadlines for Holmes stories prevented him from pursuing work on historical novels. He felt that these novels were a greater literary contribution than what he considered to be frivolous detective fiction. His wife’s terminal illness sealed Doyle’s resolution to free himself from the demands of writing Holmes so that he might devote more time to her care and to those literary pursuits that he deemed more serious. Having completed The Final Problem, Doyle tersely observed in his notebook: “Killed Holmes.”
Doyle may have been casual about disposing of his famous creation, but his fans were most definitely not satisfied to leave their hero below the swirling depths in Switzerland. Fans expressed emotions ranging from mild disappointment to outrage. One woman famously began her letter to Doyle with the salutation, “You Beast!”
Despite the furious clamor to have Holmes return, Doyle resisted for several years. It was not until 1901 that Doyle finally relented with the publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles, arguably the most famous Holmes tale. Doyle stressed that this story happened before The Final Problem and did not constitute a resurrection for Holmes. Having tested the waters, Doyle finally resolved to restore Holmes to life with the publication of The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903.
Public pressure is often credited with pushing Doyle to revive Holmes. While that is probably true to a degree, Doyle also seemed to have reached a point of acceptance in regard to being known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Graham Moore’s 2010 novel The Sherlockian offers an entertaining fictional scenario of Doyle working through his frustrations with Holmes in the midst of a real case.
Most of Doyle’s other pursuits, while successful in different ways, did not insure him the visibility or immortality that Holmes gave him. No one living today besides a few specialists and avid Doyle fans have actually read The White Company (1891), Doyle’s gripping tale of the Hundred Years War. The only reason anyone besides a few paranormal aficionados cares that Doyle was an avid spiritualist is because he was also the creator of Sherlock Holmes. His chronicle of the Boer War and service to the British Empire was notable at the time, but it is Holmes who inspires non-Brits to care about those aspects of his career.
It is ironically often harder for historians and authors to accept the reality that none of us usually gets to write our own story. Irony ensues because we who write everyone else’s story are accustomed to controlling the narrative. However Doyle saw himself, the world would forever see him as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Doyle ever fully understood this, he did come to accept that he had created something worthwhile.
We do not get to choose our times or the challenges and opportunities they yield. Sometimes we are not the best judges of our most lasting contributions. What we assume to be fluff or frivolity may indeed be impacting people in positive ways beyond our understanding. Long after The Final Problem, Sherlock Holmes is alive and well. And his survival insures the continued cultural immortality of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator who once sought so eagerly to destroy his creation.
Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.