Arthur Conan Doyle had much bigger ambitions than Sherlock Holmes. He was confident that his real achievements would be his sweeping historical epics, The White Company and Sir Nigel, but they didn’t make the cut (there are some fun bits in the first novel but it bogs down fairly soon. Never tried the second). Instead it was Holmes, with the second string being Professor Challenger (The Lost World) and swashbuckling French soldier Brigadier Gerard.
Doyle, however, had no way to know this, so he was probably confident he could wrap up the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem,” the last story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes opens the story by showing up at Watson’s house, obviously in fear of attack. He tells Watson how he’s come to realize that at the center of London crime lies a mastermind, someone who manipulate and controls all the lesser players, a “Napoleon of Crime.” Holmes has identified the man as mathematical genius Professor James Moriarty (illustration by Sidney Paget), a man of seemingly perfect respectability. He has everything in place for Scotland Yard to bust and convict the gang, but not if he’s killed first. He and Watson flee to the Continent until the arrests are made, but Moriarty and his top lieutenants escape. In Switzerland, Moriarty confronts Holmes and decides to settle things mano-a-mano, though he courteously allows Holmes to leave a note for the absent Watson. It appears to Watson that the finest man he’s ever known went over the Reichenbach Falls grappling with Moriarty, ending both lives (Holmes had previously stated that he’d consider sacrificing himself to take out Moriarty a Needs of the Many situation).
Partly based on master 18th century criminal Jonathan Wild (and possibly also the 19th century thief Adam Worth), Moriarty is a truly memorable figure. Their conversation together, as Holmes later recounts to Watson, is just a pleasure to read (“All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.” “I imagine my answer has already crossed yours.”). Although he would only make one more appearance, in The Valley of Fear, later writers have made far more of him. Not only the Cumberpatch Sherlock but the Arthur Wontner films of nearly a century ago, plus several appearances in Basil Rathbone’s 1940s series. He’s even shown up in multiple stories with no Holmes attached. Fans want more Moriarty, so they provide it.
The story also provides a feast for Holmes fans because there’s so much that can be read into it. At one point Holmes says without him the police can’t possibly arrest Moriarty and make it stick … but after running off to the Continent he’s surprised that Moriarty has escaped. And while Watson is completely ignorant of Moriarty here, in The Valley of Fear, set several years earlier, he’s fully informed about him.
Obviously in introducing Moriarty here, Watson had to pretend ignorance so he could have Holmes explain the professor to him (presumably a conversation they actually had on some earlier case). But establishing that Watson’s stories fudge the facts gives fans a lot of leeway to ignore what’s on the printed page rather than be bound by it.
The logical gaps likewise fuel fan speculation. For example, maybe Holmes actually couldn’t get the goods on Moriarty so he lured him into a confrontation that would end the master criminal. So Holmes himself would also be capable of fudging facts (things really kick into high gear when Holmes returns, as I’ll detail eventually).
“Final Problem” is a memorable story in more ways than one.