The death of Sherlock Holmes is reported by Watson in the story entitled: *The Final Problem.*
To gain a full and complete appreciation of this “final” story of the Sherlock Holmes series, it is necessary to view it in the context in which it was written by Conan-Doyle. It was his desired end of Sherlock Holmes for all times and with finality. It was the absolute unqualified death of Sherlock Holmes without thought or contemplation of the possibility of restoration.
It is necessary, also, to view *The Final Problem* as it was read and understood by its readers at the time. It was the irreversible end of an era. To gain a full appreciation it is also necessary to view *The Final Problem* through the eyes of those readers who for 10 years could not accept the death of Holmes. They had an unquenchable thirst for more of Sherlock Holmes, a thirst that Conan-Doyle obstinately refused to satisfy in despite many pleas and much clamor for more.
To adopt this mental attitude and gain the ability to transform our thinking to the context of the times of those awful ten years will require an extreme effort of intellectual discipline. We must totally expunge from our minds all events of the story entitled *The Adventure of the Empty House* and all those wonderful tales that followed.
It is not an easy task to remove from our thinking those things which are held in a high esteem approaching reverence. But this we must do if we are to view the end of Sherlock Holmes in the light of the times when Conan-Doyle decided to rid himself of this nuisance – the Holmes tales which he felt distracted him from his serious work, his historical novels of warfare and knighthood. So it was necessary that Sherlock Holmes be cast into the Reichenbach Falls to the finality of death where there was no expectation of restoration, resurrection or revivification of the Great Detective. Thus, Sherlock Holmes was destined to die the death of the dead.
To justify the death of Holmes there had to be a heroic service of epic proportions rendered by Holmes in the act of his dying. Therefore Conan-Doyle invented Professor James Moriarty, a villain of heroic proportion to be the antagonist. The readers were first introduced to Moriarty in this story where Moriarty and Holmes “died” together. So far as the readers of that day knew, it was the last they would ever hear of either Moriarty or Holmes.
Holmes tells us that he had a great of admiration for Moriarty. Holmes described him to Watson:
“His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of 21 he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.”
Holmes, the unemotional observer and logician, viewed Moriarty with an equal degree of disdain:
“… But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumors gathered round him in the university town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and to come down to London, where he set up as an army coach. So much is known to the world, but what I am telling you now is what I have myself discovered.”
Holmes, usually, maintained a balanced view. But in these circumstances he succumbed to admiration:
“You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.”
Thus was created an antagonist to equal Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist and to justify the duality of the deaths they experienced together.
Watson and Holmes had enjoyed a close companionship from January 1881 to May 4th 1891 They had worked together investigating cases. Holmes had shared with Watson the most intimate details of other cases. Some of these on a confidential basis. It is almost beyond belief that Watson had not previously heard of Professor James Moriarty. But such was, beyond peradventure, the fact. So we must make the conscious effort to suspend disbelief and accept that during those 10 years Watson had never heard of the Napoleon of Crime. You need to read it, yourself, to accept it .Here Watson reports on his conversation with Holmes:
“You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said he.
“Ay, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried. “The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, … But I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.”
The probability approaches certainty that Holmes was aware , under the circumstances existing at the time, that the extinguishment of Moriarty would require the extinguishment of Holmes, too. He so indicated several times. Holmes reported to Watson upon the exchange between Moriarty and himself:
“You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.”
Holmes replied: “You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty, … Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.”
Then, later, in the letter that Holmes left for Watson as a “Farewell Message” Holmes said:
“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. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this.”
Holmes, as he strengthened his resolve for the Final Battle with Moriarty, continued repeating to himself: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities)
So, Conan-Doyle gained his release from the captivity of Sherlock Holmes. The author is now free to apply his talents to his historical novels. As he sits in his study with pen in hand, crowds gather outside his home to cheer and to jeer. Some have come to cheer the author with the hope of persuading him to bring Holmes back to life. Others have come to jeer at the man who killed off their favorite friend. Conan-Doyle is pleased that Holmes meant so much to so many, and he is sad that he must bear the brunt of the scoffers. Filtering through his mind, all the while, is the refrain – “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” (Dickens -- ibid).
(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at email@example.com.)