Having resolved that Sherlock Holmes must die, and having decided on Switzerland as the country that could provide a suitable backcloth against which to do the deed, Arthur Conan Doyle began planning the dramatic demise of his creation.
THE FINAL PROBLEM
And thus, he sat down to his writing desk, put pen to paper and began the adventure that would, so he fully intended, seal Holmes’s fate forever – The Final Problem.
Of course, a character of Holmes’s stature would need a suitable adversary if his death was to be anything other than mundane, and so Conan Doyle set Holmes against his arch nemesis, the Napoleon of crime – Professor James Moriarty, even going to far as to have Holmes tell Watson, in a prophetic passage, “your memoirs will draw to an end upon the day that I crown my career by the capture or extinction of the most dangerous and capable criminal mind in Europe.”
THE DEATH OF HOLMES
With an air of determined inevitability, Conan Doyle sent Holmes and Watson to
Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls where , by the end of the story, “the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation”, have both, apparently, plunged to their deaths in the gorge.
Having ended the life of his creation, Conan Doyle noted the occasion his his diary with an entry that read simply “Killed Holmes”, and moved on to “better things.”
PUBLIC REACTION TO HOLMES’S DEMISE
In December 1893, readers of The Strand magazine read the account of the death of Holmes open-jawed, and their displeasure at the loss of the detective, who had been so much a part of their lives for the last few years, was immediate and vociferous. “I was amazed,” Conan Doyle later admitted, “at the concern expressed by the public.”
Angry letter flooded in. Conan Doyle would recall in his autobiography one particular missive which began simply ” You Brute”! City businessmen and bankers wore black arm bands to commemorate the passing of Holmes, and there was even a story that Conan Doyle had been set upon in the street by a hand bag wielding matron who recognised him as the murderer of Sherlock Holmes. Even members of the royal family were said to be distraught.
The shareholders of The Strand magazine were even more distraught when 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions in direct response to the loss of Sherlock Holmes!
POOR HOLMES IS DEAD AND DAMNED
Conan Doyle, though, was adamant that he had done the right thing in Killing Holmes. “I have had such an overdose of him, ” he would later say “that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”
In a speech given to the Author’s Club he was equally unrepentant. ” I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death,” he lectured, “but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defence, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”
As he put it in 1896 “poor Holmes is dead and damned.”
COULD HOLMES RETURN?
Or was he?
For, as fans were soon pointing out, Watson had not actually seen Holmes fall to his death. And the murder lacked the all important proof that Holmes was, i fact, dead, namely a body.
Could it be that Conan Doyle had left open the possibility that Sherlock Homes might on day return?
At Christmas 1893, the only option open to distraught fans of Holmes – and, for that matter, the even more distraught shareholders of The Strand magazine – was to hold their collective breaths and hope!