“The Final Problem” is a story of mythic power. A good man, the champion of civilization, must journey far from his home and his friends, to a strange, wild place in the mountains, where he engages in mortal combat with his devilish arch-enemy. The cost of destroying the evil one, and saving the world from his dominion, is the sacrifice of the good man’s own life; and he makes this sacrifice willingly.
“I am pleased,” wrote Holmes, in his final message, “to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of [Moriarty’s] 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.”
There are obvious echoes of the Christian story here.
Those who are familiar with “The Lord of the Rings” will also feel a sense of familiarity. Gandalf and the Balrog fighting to the death in Moria immediately comes to mind as being very like the combat of Holmes and Moriarty: it seems that the good man and the demon have both killed each other, but Gandalf will later make a surprise return – not unlike Holmes in “The Empty House”. Also the central narrative of Tolkien’s novel, about Frodo’s journey to Mordor, accompanied by his faithful Sam, is like a slowed-down version of the journey made by Holmes and Watson in “The Final Problem”, which begins in Dr. Watson’s cosy parlour and ends on a terrible mountain-side, where the final struggle for mastery of the world takes place between a brave human hero and a grotesque embodiment of evil.
So this is certainly a powerful mythic tale; and, because of that, most readers disregard how many improbabilities it contains. In fact, considered (in proper Holmesian style) as a true account of something that happened in the real world, it makes no sense at all.
Consider: the story begins with a distraught Holmes turning up at Watson’s house one Friday night and asking him to go on what Holmes says will be a week’s trip to the east, in Europe. Why do they have to go? Allegedly because Holmes is in danger of attack from the agents of Professor Moriarty, who is the head of a vast criminal organization (something like the Mafia, one supposes). On Monday, however, the members of this organization will all be arrested, and Holmes will be safe. One obvious question is: That happens on Monday, and this is Friday, so why are we going away for a week? Doctor Watson never asks it. Neither does he ask why Holmes doesn’t stay in his own country where he has many powerful friends, and an Army and a Police Force to defend him. Really, if I were in Holmes’s position (as Watson describes it), I’d ask my brother Mycroft to put me somewhere safe with lots of reliable government men to keep assassins at bay. But Holmes, by contrast, grabs the astonished Watson and leads him on a bewildering journey through Continental Europe to the side of a barren mountain in Switzerland — because, out of all the possible destinations in Europe, that seemed the best to Holmes, for some reason that is never disclosed in the story.
When Holmes is at the mountain, quite alone (Watson having being called away) Professor Moriarty appears, also apparently alone and unarmed. This seems very odd. Why did Moriarty not bring a pistol, or a gang of men with pistols? Moriarty was old and decrepit: in a fist-fight or a wrestling-match Holmes was bound to beat him. Was Moriarty’s goal in this encounter to murder Holmes? Or might he have come for another reason?
Clearly Dr. Watson cannot be telling us the entire truth about these events. I suggest that the truth behind the tale was that Holmes and Moriarty met by appointment at this barren place to fight a duel. Not hand-to-hand combat, as Watson’s story absurdly states, but a regular duel with pistols, such as nineteenth-century gentlemen generally fought. Colonel Moran was Moriarty’s second, and Watson filled the same office for Holmes. It may well be true that Watson was called away before the combat, as he tells us; but I prefer to think that he was present, and saw Holmes kill his rival. The Professor’s body was thrown over the falls; and then there was some kind of altercation with Colonel Moran, who ran off vowing vengeance. Because duelling was illegal, and killing someone in a duel could be prosecuted as murder, the two friends decided that Watson should disguise the facts in his account of these events, to make it appear that no duel had taken place.
One can quite easily imagine that Moriarty, who saw himself as a gentleman, would have wished to fight Holmes in a gentlemanly way. Although weaker than Holmes, he might still have been a good shot, with a good chance of winning.
But why would Holmes have accepted Moriarty’s challenge? Although Moriarty might have been a man of honour, then again he might have had a band of ruffians lurking in the shadows, waiting for Holmes – or just a single expert sniper, such as Colonel Moran.
John Radford suggested (in his excellent book “The Intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, and Other Three-Pipe Problems”), at the end of the last century, that Moriarty had discovered some shameful secret about Holmes’s past, which made him vulnerable to blackmail. Holmes would have accepted Moriarty’s challenge more readily if the alternative involved the publication of such a secret. This also gives a reasonable explanation of the Great Hiatus. Radford suggested that Holmes was unsure whether any of Moriarty’s underlings knew his secret, and didn’t want to be about if they revealed it to the world; but when, after three years, it had not come out, he felt safe to return. That makes a lot of sense to me.
But what could this terrible secret have been? You will perhaps find it sadly easy to imagine some of the most likely things of which a Victorian gentleman might be ashamed. If you’d like to know my idea of it, you will have to read my novel, “A Case of Witchcraft”, published next week!