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 Sherlock Holmes was distinguised.
The Final Problem and The Empty House, published 10 years apart, represent more than any of their 54 sister stories the means by which Holmes has become not a character in detective fiction but a figure of modern myth. Christopher Morley once wrote of “the wave of dismay that went around the English-reading world when Sherlock and Professor Moriarty supposedly perished together in the Reichenbach Fall,” and that strength of response to Holmes’s demise, and that attachment to his life, has never faltered. Conan Doyle had famously come to loathe his creation – we saw last week how even the longest story, and the freshest genres, could not breathe life into the detective’s cases for their composer – but in destroying him the poor fellow merely ensured Holmes’s immortality.
The Final Problem sees a whole new Holmes: he is not a dilettante fascinated by minutiae and driven by ego, but a crusader for justice who would happily retire if he could only defeat the “Napoleon of crime”; a man engaged not in quiet consultation but in an epic struggle for years, straining “to break through the veil” of a vast criminal conspiracy overseen by a single man; and, of course, in that individual Holmes obtains his opposite, his evil twin, against whom he has been pitted by the Fates, to the death. We first see Holmes in this story bloodied and harried, admitting for perhaps the first time that “I have been pressed a little of late.” He is in fear, nervous of stealthy attack, and in the very teeth of a titanic struggle of intellect and will.
There is still enough of our Holmes here to recognise him – in changing trains at Canterbury, he neatly outsmarts Moriarty, and in his final stoic missive he retains that inhuman calm. But undoubtedly this story represents something of a retcon, refashioning Holmes not as a fabulous problem-solver but a man on a close to mythical quest, who gratefully embraces death so as to free the world of a great evil. His resurrection in The Empty House completes this Arthurian transformation: Holmes returns to Watson, and to us, and recommits himself to the good of the polity. Conan Doyle, in bowing to the pressure of his public and bank manager, has only fattened the albatross around his neck.
Indeed, The Empty House is a reboot where The Final Problem was a retcon: Watson’s wife is dead, leading us back to the bachelor days of A Study in Scarlet (though Watson’s matrimonial status is deeply confused). Likewise, Lestrade is once again the butt of Holmes’s jokes, and the great detective remains unschooled in human emotion (“I had no idea that you would be so affected,” he protests when Watson faints upon his old friend’s return). The murder of Roland Adair is a classic locked-room mystery, and Holmes has little time for nostalgia – he is, almost immediately, immersed in this new case. His travels – again, epic in scale, ranging from Tibet to Khartoum, Persia to Montpellier – have changed him not a bit, and he has returned to London, to Watson, and to us – of course – merely to solve a tricky little problem. “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety,” he laughs in the course of the story, and this resurrection has indeed imbued Holmes with something close to the magical.
How a reader might have responded to The Final Problem when it was exactly that we cannot know – after all, it is largely taken up with reportage and dialogue, and though it proceeds at an exciting pace, it only ever tells us of its vast import, rarely showing it – but taken together (though The Empty House begs the question why, if Colonel Moran knew Holmes was alive, did the detective take such pains to pretend he wasn’t), the two stories are to the modern reader something very simple: Holmes as Orpheus, returning, multi-talented and preternaturally wise, from the underworld – and in the process becoming something more than a mere character from some old detective novels. Poor old Arthur.
“… and once again Sherlock Holmes is free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”