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Sherlock Holmes: the truth at last

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Sherlock Holmes: the truth at last

Old 04-26-01, 01:34 PM
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What really happened at the Reichenbach Falls?

David McKie
Thursday April 26, 2001
The Guardian

In tribute to Michael Williams, who died in January, the BBC last week repeated a 1991 production of The Final Problem, one of a long-running series in which Williams played Dr Watson to Clive Merrison's Sherlock Holmes. This is Watson's account of the terrible events of May 4 1891 when Holmes, locked in mortal combat with his arch-enemy Moriarty, fell to his death at the Reichenbach Falls. Except of course that he didn't because, as Watson later recounts, three years afterwards Holmes reappeared, disguised as a wizened old bibliophile.

There are curiosities here which Holmesians often debate. If Moriarty is, as Holmes says, "the Napoleon of crime", with whom he has wrestled "for years", why has Watson, his closest confidant, never previously heard of him? Yet now Holmes speaks of him in terms of morbid obsession. At last, he enthuses, he has met in this evil professor an antagonist whose intellect matches his own. He goes on to report a conversation with Moriarty in which the professor pays equal tribute to him.

This whole encounter has a dreamlike quality that Watson quite fails to notice. Moriarty materialises unannounced in Holmes's rooms to warn the great detective of the dreadful fate that awaits him if he goes on being obstructive. Soon after, Holmes goes into the streets, where three attempts are made on his life. But for all of this, we have Holmes's word alone. There are no witnesses - any more than there is a witness to what happens at the Reichenbach Falls.

And surely only someone as trusting and gullible as the doctor could have swallowed Holmes's unsupported account of what he did after escaping at Reichenbach while the world mourned his death - a stay in Florence, two years travelling in Tibet (including several days with the head lama), excursions to Persia, Mecca, Khartoum and France, where he spends several months in Montpellier researching into coal-tar derivatives. This is plainly preposterous. Indeed, the closer you look at Watson's account, the more you begin to doubt whether Moriarty ever existed.

There are only three strands of evidence here that do not rely wholly on Holmes's testimony: an incident at Victoria Station in which a tall man tries and fails to board the train which is carrying Holmes and Watson to Europe; the fact that two lines of footsteps are visible on the track where Holmes sets off for the Falls after Watson has been called away by a hoax message; and some letters written by the dead professor's brother, presumably to newspapers, disputing Watson's account of Moriarty's character. But all are hopelessly flimsy. The only reason Watson thinks the man on the station is Moriarty is because Holmes suggests it. The explanation for the second set of footprints is staring Watson in the face: as he himself records, Holmes persuaded the lad who brought the hoax letter to guide him up to the Falls. As for the newspaper letters from Colonel Moriarty, these must have been hoaxes, too, since the signature is "James Moriarty" - the same name as the professor's. Holmes has a record of misleading newspapers. "The Press, Watson," he says in The Six Napoleons, "is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it."

Yet Moriarty plainly exists. His criminal confederates answer to him, though few have ever seen him. No one doubts that many heinous crimes across London have been ordered by him. After hearing last week's broadcast, it seems to me clearer than ever that the confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls never took place. Nor could it have, for Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty were the same person .

There are hints, even in the wide-eyed account of the unsuspecting doctor, that this might be so. There is the odd, unexplained reluctance of Holmes to take on new cases in 1890. There is his bored complaint (in The Copper Beeches) that today's criminals have lost all all their enterprise and originality. There is the curious parallel between Holmes's description of Moriarty as pale and thin, and Watson's own observation of Holmes at the time ("even paler and thinner than usual"). There are also his musings to Watson over the years about how he might have become a master criminal had he not been a master detective.

The most likely explanation is this: that starved of a challenger worthy of his steel, Holmes invented one, and played him himself; and that, with the police closing in on "Moriarty", the only way he could escape further inquiry was to kill him off. Only when the excitement had died - and perhaps his own remorse had faded - was it safe to resurface as Holmes. This may not be an original thought. The literature on Holmes is so copious that such theories may well have been aired before. But the watchword in all such matters should be taken from Holmes himself: "It is a maxim of mine," he tells Watson in The Beryl Coronet, "that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth." Precisely.
I'm guessing that there has to be one or two Sherlock Holmes fans here or, even if there are none, at least someone can hijack the thread and say what other mystery writers they prefer, right?
Old 04-26-01, 04:06 PM
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Does David Mckie know that Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty are fictional characters. Christ I hate it when people get carried away with a story. Doyle wrote the Final Problem, so he could kill off Holmes. Doyle hated the character and was sick of writing Holmes stories. However, when the public outcry became too much he had to bring Holmes back and explain how it was that he didn't die at the falls. If it had been up to Doyle the Final Problem would have been the final story.
Old 11-06-04, 03:47 AM
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ha, ha, Benedict. Thanks for unburying this rather short and ancient thread. Have you been waiting for three years to post Darkside's response in another thread?

Old 11-06-04, 07:27 AM
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Everything comes to he who waits!

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