The Adventure of the Final Problem

The Adventure of the Final Problem

The Adventure of the Final Problem is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring his detective character Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in "Strand Magazine" in December 1893. It appears in book form as part of the collection "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes". Conan Doyle later ranked "The Adventure of the Final Problem" fourth on his personal list of the twelve best Holmes stories.

Plot summary

This story, set in 1891, introduces Holmes' greatest opponent, the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty.

Holmes arrives at Dr. Watson's one evening in a somewhat agitated state and with abraded knuckles. He has apparently escaped three murder attempts that day after a visit from Professor Moriarty, who warned him to withdraw from his pursuit of justice against him to avoid any regrettable outcome.

Holmes has been tracking Moriarty and his agents for months and is on the brink of snaring them all and delivering them to the dock. Moriarty is the nexus of a highly organised and amazingly secret criminal force and Holmes will consider it the crowning achievement of his career if only he can defeat Moriarty. Moriarty of course is out to thwart Holmes' plans and is well capable of doing so, for he is, as Holmes admits, the great detective's intellectual equal.

Holmes asks Watson to come to the continent with him, giving him unusual instructions designed to hide his tracks to Victoria station. Holmes is not quite sure where they will go; this seems rather odd to Watson. Holmes then leaves Watson's by climbing over the back wall in the garden, certain that he has been followed to his friend's.

The next day Watson follows Holmes' instructions to the letter and finds himself waiting in the reserved first class coach for his friend, but only an elderly Italian priest is there. The cleric soon makes it apparent that he is Holmes in disguise.

As the train pulls out of Victoria, Holmes spots Moriarty on the platform, apparently trying to get someone to stop the train. Holmes is forced to take action as Moriarty has obviously tracked Watson, despite extraordinary precautions. He and Watson alight at Canterbury, changing their route plan. As they are waiting for another train to Newhaven a special one coach train roars through Canterbury as Holmes suspected it would. It contains Moriarty who has hired the train in an effort to overtake Holmes. Holmes and Watson are forced to hide behind luggage.

Holmes receives a message that most of Moriarty's gang have been arrested in England and Holmes recommends Watson return there now that Holmes will likely be a very dangerous companion. Watson however decides to stay with his friend. Moriarty himself has slipped out of the grasp of the English police and is obviously with them on the continent.

Holmes' and Watson's journey take them to Switzerland where they stay at Meiringen. From there they fatefully decide to take a walk which will include a visit to Reichenbach Falls, a local natural wonder. Once there, they find it is everything that has been said about it. and more.

A boy appears and hands Watson a note, saying that there is a sick Englishwoman back at the hotel who wants an English doctor. Holmes realises at once it is a hoax although he does not say so. Watson goes to see about the patient, leaving Holmes alone.

When he reaches the "Englischer Hof", the innkeeper has no idea about any sick Englishwoman. Realizing at last what has happened, Watson rushes back to Reichenbach Falls, but finds no one there, although he does see two sets of footprints going out onto the muddy dead end path with none coming back. There is also a note from Holmes, explaining that he knew the report Watson was given to be a hoax and that he is about to fight Moriarty who has graciously given him enough time to pen this last letter. Watson sees that towards the end of the path there are signs that a violent struggle has taken place. It is all too clear Holmes and Moriarty have both died, falling to their deaths down the gorge whilst locked in mortal combat. Dr. Watson returns to England with sorrow in his heart.

Themes and circumstances of writing

As is well-known, "The Final Problem" was intended to be exactly what its name says. Conan Doyle meant to stop writing about his famous detective with this short story in which he would be killed off as he felt the Sherlock Holmes stories were distracting him from more worthwhile literary efforts and that killing Holmes off was the only way of getting his career back on track. "I must save my mind for better things," he wrote to his mother at the time, "even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him."

Conan Doyle sought to sweeten the pill by letting Holmes go in a blaze of glory, having rid the world of a criminal so powerful and dangerous that any further task would be trivial in comparison. (Holmes says as much in the story.)

But as is equally well known this device failed in its purpose and pressure from fans eventually persuaded Doyle to bring Holmes back. There were enough holes in eyewitness accounts to allow Conan Doyle to plausibly resurrect Holmes and during his three year "death" only the few free surviving members of Moriarty's organisation and Holmes' brother Mycroft (who appears briefly in this story) know that Sherlock Holmes is still alive, actually having won the struggle at Reichenbach Falls and sending Moriarty to his doom but nearly meeting his own at Moriarty's henchmen's hands.

Other media

In the 1985 television adaptation starring Jeremy Brett, the story begins with the theft of the Mona Lisa, masterminded by Moriarty in order to sell prepared fakes to collectors. Holmes recovers the original painting just before Moriarty makes a sale to a "Mr. Morgan" (presumably the real-life financier J. P. Morgan). Holmes' interference with his plans convinces Moriarty that the detective must be eliminated. A plot hole is Holmes' use of the Bertillon ID system of using fingerprints to trap Moriarty's agents and recover the painting, for ironically enough, the "real" Bertillon system did "not" use fingerprints as part of criminal ID!

The story was previously adapted for radio by John Kier Cross; it was broadcast on April 17, 1955, and starred John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson, and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty.

Memorials at Meiringen and the falls

Inhabitants of Meiringen (4,740 of them, as of 2004) are still grateful to Doyle and Holmes for providing an enduring worldwide fame of their falls and considerably promoting tourism to the town.

A museum dedicated to Holmes is housed in the basement of an English Church located in what has now been named Conan Doyle Place.

At the funicular station near the falls there is a memorial plate to "the most famous detective in the world".

The actual ledge from which Moriarty and Holmes supposedly fell is on the other side of the falls. It is accessible by climbing the path to the top of the falls, crossing the bridge, and following the trail down the hill. The ledge is marked by a plaque written in English, German, and French. The English inscription reads "At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891."

imilarity with "The First Men in The Moon"

The last parting of Watson and Holmes in this story bears considerable similarity to that between Bedford and Cavor, the protagonists of H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon published just a few years later. [Barton G. Cartwright, "We Will Meet Again?" (collected essays), New York, 1968, p. 73] Like Holmes, Cavor parts with Bedford without expecting to see him again and when Bedford later returns to the scene he only finds a parting letter from his friend; and like Holmes, it later turns out Cavor did not die after all. While there is no concrete proof Wells read Doyle's story or was influenced by it, that seems a reasonable inference, given both were prominent writers active in London at the same time.


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