Conan Doyle was an incredibly gifted writer, as anyone who has read his work knows. Sometimes, however, talent or no, you just get lucky. And that, it now seems to me, was what happened with a little tale called "The Final Problem."
We were discussing "The Final Problem" last night as the Hansoms of John Clayton, Peoria's local Sherlockian society, gathered once again. We're more of a smaller, book discussion group these days than a bigger society of speakers and banquets, and that does not seem to be an entirely bad thing. The chance to not miss anyone's ideas, as one might in a larger crowd, provides the opportunity for themes to develop, and last night the theme seemed to center on all the things Doyle didn't tell us in "The Final Problem." In fact, the entire story is practically untold.
"The Final Problem" begins with Watson saying he's only writing the story up because Moriarty's brother wrote letters defending his brother. Watson doesn't say what was in those letters, or why Colonel James Moriarty's words provoked him to publish Holmes's greatest triumph . . . which Watson was going to otherwise leave out of the public press.
When Sherlock Holmes first starts explaining about Professor Moriarty, it's all "dark rumours" and "hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind" instead of specifics. When Moriarty shows up in person for the first great confrontation between detective and mastermind, the conversation is completely "you know what you did" and "you know what I'm thinking" sorts of lines. But perhaps the capper is Holmes's own words about the battle between himself and Moriarty:
"I tell you, my friend, that if a detailed account of that silent contest could be written, it would take its place as the most brilliant bit of thrust-and-parry work in the history of detection." Sherlock Holmes comes straight out and says it: There's an incredible story here that is not getting told. Later in life, when Holmes could have taken the time and written up that story, what did he choose to do instead? Write short stories about a man with a disease and a sea creature, and then write a book on bees. All that material from the Moriarty campaign, and he writes about nothing to do with crime at all? There's an aspect of Holmes's psyche still unexplored.
But unexplored is the very heart of "The Final Problem." When Holmes and Moriarty have their final confrontation, Holmes calls an extensive time-out and writes Watson a letter. (It's a very casual final battle, apparently.) In it Holmes says that Moriarty has taken the time to explain how he tracked Holmes and Watson, and how he escaped the police, but do we get to hear it? Of course not.
Watson even closes the record with "As to the gang, it will be within the memory of the public how completely the evidence which Holmes had accumulated exposed their organization." The public? "The great unobservant public," as Holmes once called them? Watson's reliance on their memory instead of actually telling the story just denies us that much more.
It's well known that Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to be rid of Sherlock Holmes when he wrote "The Final Problem." And he apparently wanted to be rid of him as quickly and efficiently as possible. Filling out all the untold portions of that single story would have easily filled a novel that took long months or even years to write, which would have defeated the entire purpose of getting Holmes out of his life to begin with. So Conan Doyle took a lot of shortcuts. A LOT of shortcuts.
And while doing so may not have made for the most satisfying story, Doyle provided more fan fodder and pastiche primer that anywhere else in the stories of Sherlock. Had he contrived to set us up that way on purpose, one would have to bump his genius up quite a few notches in one's estimation. But, like I said at the start sometimes you just get lucky.
Without the cycle of Moriarty, death, and rebirth, Sherlock Holmes would still be a popular detective, yes. But would he rise to legendary? Mythic? That, like most of "The Final Problem," is one more story we shall never know.