two men, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, stare at one another and an envelope floats above them

The Adventure of the Final Problem

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In December, 1893, in the British magazine The Strand and the American magazine McClure’s, readers were shocked to see Dr. Watson’s melancholy account of the death of Holmes, who, according to Watson, was murdered two years earlier by Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. In writing “The Adventure of the Final Problem” and by introducing a new character of mythic proportions in Moriarty, however, Doyle probably effectively ensured that public pressure for more tales would increase rather than diminish.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem” is a tale not of detection but of rivalry and pursuit. Holmes comes to Watson’s home in the night, when by good fortune Mrs. Watson is away on a visit and Watson is free to travel with Holmes to the Continent to escape Moriarty. Moriarty is one of the first great leaders of organized crime in fiction. Doyle presents him as in every way Holmes’s equal, except that Moriarty has inherited criminal tendencies that have made him diabolical. Moriarty has organized a crime network that is like a giant spider’s web, with the professor as the spider at its center: “He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” To counter the professor’s web, Holmes has helped the police to construct a net in which those in Moriarty’s gang, including the great spider himself, will be caught. He has not, however, been able to carry out this project without Moriarty’s knowledge. On the day Holmes visits Watson, Moriarty has come to Holmes’s rooms and promised that if Holmes destroys him, the professor will take Holmes with him. Holmes has refused to be intimidated and, as a result, has endured a series of murder attempts during the day.

Holmes requests Watson’s company for a trip to Switzerland, the main purpose of which is to evade Moriarty until the arrests occur, which for unexplained reasons requires three days of waiting. Despite their elaborate measures, Moriarty is able to follow them. When his gang is arrested, Moriarty himself is not caught. The professor overtakes Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. When Watson returns to the scene he has been fooled into leaving, all the remaining evidence indicates that Holmes and Moriarty, locked in a final struggle, fell into the falls, from which their bodies cannot be recovered.

Repeatedly in this story, Holmes reflects to Watson that his career has reached a peak and, therefore, that he is willing to accept even death if this proves to be the only way to rid England of Moriarty. This fatalistic mood proves prophetic when it appears the two have died in an equal and apparently irresolvable struggle of wit and skill.

That Doyle had some reservations about killing his hero seems clear. While having the bodies lost may seem to annihilate Holmes utterly, it leaves quite open the possibility that Doyle later exploited: that Holmes, in fact, did not die but went underground to avoid the dangers of Moriarty’s remaining friends. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes returns from three years of retreat to apprehend Moriarty’s most dangerous remaining agents, among them Colonel Sebastian Moran. Of course, Doyle might have avoided reviving Holmes by “discovering” more of the many cases he solved before his death, as he did when he published The Hound of the Baskervilles. Public pleasure at Holmes’s “resurrection” greatly enhanced the detective’s popularity and ensured a devoted readership for the many more tales Doyle wrote.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access