It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished. In an incoherent and, as I deeply feel, an entirely inadequate fashion, I have endeavoured to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the “Study in Scarlet,” up to the time of his interference in the matter of the “Naval Treaty“–an interference which had the unquestionable effect of preventing a serious international complication. It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill. My hand has been forced, however, by the recent letters in which Colonel James Moriarty defends the memory of his brother, and I have no choice but to lay the facts before the public exactly as they occurred. I alone know the absolute truth of the matter, and I am satisfied that the time has come when no good purpose is to be served by its suppression. As far as I know, there have been only three accounts in the public press: that in the Journal de Geneve on May 6th, 1891, the Reuter’s despatch in the English papers on May 7th, and finally the recent letter to which I have alluded. Of these the first and second were extremely condensed, while the last is, as I shall now show, an absolute perversion of the facts. It lies with me to tell for the first time what really took place between Professor Moriarty and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
We conclude The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes with the most infamous story in the entire original canon. One cannot call themselves a fan of the Great Detective without having heard of the Reichenbach Falls, and even those who have never actually read a Holmes adventure know the name of Professor James Moriarty.
It’s a curious note that Watson mentions in the opening paragraph of the story (quoted above) that Professor Moriarty’s brother is named Colonel James Moriarty, while the professor himself has no first name here. We just assume his name must be James as well. I sometimes wonder if it’s like boxer George Foreman naming all of his sons George. At any rate, the professor has no first name here. The name James appears in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” offering us the canonical name that for some reason matches that of his brother given here. Side note: there’s a stage play that Conan Doyle co-authored called Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts. In it, the character is named Professor Robert Moriarty. Seems… wrong, doesn’t it? Well, good news for the diehard Sherlockians and all those who have since incorrectly co-opted the term: that play isn’t canonical, so James it is.
The title of the story says it all: Arthur Conan Doyle had intended this to be the final Sherlock Holmes story. The Great Detective had become “a distraction” from more “serious” literary efforts. He decided that killing off his popular character was the only way put his career on the right path. He explained in a letter to his mother, “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” Isn’t that always the way? Somehow it’s not “real” art if it’s popular with the masses, for what can the masses possibly know about such things? Of course, to kill the greatest mind in criminal science, one must naturally invent the greatest mind in criminal conquest to do the deed. Holmes even makes note within the story that any further task on his part would seem trivial compared to so powerful and dangerous a foe.
So who is James Moriarty? Simply put, he’s the one character whose shadow eclipses even Irene Adler in the annals of Sherlock Holmes. Every great hero has their archnemesis: James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Superman and Lex Luthor, Batman and the Joker, and so forth. Moriarty is the prototype for the modern supervillain as we’ve come to understand such things. In this story, Moriarty is described as a professor of mathematics, which immediately raises the bar on the question of his intelligence and the coldness of his calculating mind. After all, what average person doesn’t hate and fear math? In the Victorian era, they didn’t have the rock star astrophysicists like we have today who can make math sound attractive for a candle-flicker of a moment before moving on to truly mindblowing topics. Math has always been power, and his power was being directed to protect nearly all of the criminals in the British underworld in exchange for obedience and a share of their profits. Before the New York and Chicago mobs, before the Russian mafia, before the Japanese yakuza, there was Professor James Moriarty. (Of course, we all know such crime syndicates have always existed, going at least all the way back to the Borgias in the Italian Renaissance, but this is all about dramatic effect. Work with me here.)
Moriarty is an Irish name, as is Moran, the name of Moriarty’s henchman Sebastian Moran, whom we’ll encounter in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Conan Doyle was himself of Irish descent, though he never held to his family’s religious or political traditions as most of that time would do. He is known to have used his former school, Stonyhurst College, as inspiration for many of the details in the Holmes stories. Among his schoolmates were two boys with the name Moriarty.
Moriarty is dubbed here as “the Napoleon of crime.” The nickname was first applied by Scotland Yard in variation to German-born American criminal Adam Worth, dubbed “the Napoleon of the criminal world”… not because he was a worthy adversary, but because he was short. Scotland Yard is not in the habit of elevating the criminal status to the level of anything anyone should aspire to mimic, after all. I’m not going to go into Worth’s full story here, but seriously… look it up. It’s a must-read for any Holmes fan, and he really is a great choice to inspire the character of Moriarty. Fact is stranger than fiction, after all. But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s a second inspiration for Moriarty that adds a whole new level. Canadian-American astronomer, applied mathematician, and autodidatic polymath Simon Newcomb, Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Navy and John Hopkins. His contributions to society are rather impressive, all things considered, which included the exact values for many astronomical constants including the speed of light. See what I mean? That’s impressive. It’s not for nothing that the man was internationally acclaimed in the years before this story was written. But the man had a dark side that earned him a reputation for malice and revenge as he was always looking to destroy the careers and reputations of his rival scientists.
If we operate by way of Moriarty’s academic career regarding binomial theorem, we will also dig up Carl Friedrich Gauss, who wrote a famous paper on the dynamics of an asteroid. Likewise, Srinivasa Ramaujan wrote on binomial theorem and earned a rep as a genius by writing articles that confounded his peers, as story that unfolded at Cambridge before World War I, around the time The Valley of Fear was written. And there are other models still. Holmes himself cited in The Valley of Fear the London archcriminal Jonathan Wild as a point of comparison to Moriarty. Physically, Moriarty is said to be a match for the Rev. Thomas Kay, SJ, Prefect of Discipline at Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, under whom Conan Doyle was once a pupil. Surviving Jesuit priests at Hodder Place pointed that one out, which I can’t help but find amusing. And there are still others. It’s crazy the number of “suspects” there are, but somehow that befits a mastermind like Moriarty, does it not?
And it’s not just Moriarty who is drawn from life. The scene of the final conflict can be pinpointed on the map. The falls at Reichenbach were chosen following a tour of Switzerland in 1893, where the author and his wife stayed in the village of Meiringen in the Bernese Alps. The experience apparently captured his imagination, and a very real setting for the final act would help to convey that finality to the audience… an audience who would refuse to accept it. More on that when we discuss his “resurrection.”
But first, we have to bear witness to his death, as ever through the eyes of Watson.
Holmes arrives at Watson’s residence in a state of heightened alert and upset with bleeding knuckles, having survived three separate murder attempts that day following a visit from Professor Moriarty. Holmes explains the evasions of his mortality in such a way that either the events would be seen as an accident, or as in the case where he caught the assailant, no proof would ever link him back to Moriarty.
The trouble arose due to Holmes tracking Moriarty and his agents over the course of months. He has learned that Moriarty is the greatest criminal mastermind who has ever lived. The depths and breadths of this organization is such that few could ever put any of this together, and Holmes considers it to be the pinnacle achievement of his career. He has the proof that would convict them, and he has only to stay alive to deliver such proof on Monday.
Of course, Moriarty’s back is against the wall, and so the situation becomes desperate. After the face-to-face meeting and trio of murder attempts, Holmes has come to ask Watson to come to the continent with him in a further attempt to evade the Professor until such time as he can deliver his evidence to the courts. Watson readily agrees and is given specific instructions designed to help hide his tracks. Ordinarily, I’d go through all the details here, but it occurs to me that such details are half the fun of reading the story. Why ruin it? (I realize the further irony since I blog the endings too. Don’t judge me.)
Making their way through Brussels to Strasbourg, Holmes receives a message on Monday that most of Moriarty’s gang have been arrested and recommends Watson return there now as Holmes will be a dangerous companion. Moriarty, however, has slipped the noose and hunts them even now, so Watson stays. Their path continues to Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls. A messenger boy appears with a note for Watson; a sick Englishwoman at the hotel demands an English doctor. Holmes realizes immediately it’s a ruse, but says nothing. It’s a matter of conscience for Watson that he render aid, and it’s a matter of fatalism for Holmes himself that he face his opponent. Watson learns the truth upon his arrival and races back, knowing the trap has been sprung.
Upon his return to the falls, Watson finds that no one is there. He sees two sets of footprints going in, and none returning. There is also a note from Holmes, torn from his pocket notebook, that explains he knew the messenger was false and that he is about to face Moriarty. The Professor was kind enough to allow time to leave this last letter. Watson notes signs of violent struggle, but as there are no returning footprints, it seems Holmes and Moriarty have both fallen to their demise.
Watson returns to England. Moriarty’s gang is convicted in large part to the evidence Holmes secured against them. It’s only due to misrepresented reports that Watson comes forward now, to clear the record and call out Moriarty for who and what he was. The account ends by saying that Sherlock Holmes was the best and the wisest man he had ever known. Were this truly the final story, it would be a fitting epitaph.
We’ve discussed from the beginning that Sherlock Holmes is one of those rare characters whose life and exploits are often assumed to be real and historical by a great many people. “The Final Problem” is one of those landmark stories that, rightfully, lays claim to the enduring legacy of the character. As such, and given the physical location of the events, it was inevitable that story should be marked accordingly. The citizens of Meiringen have erected their own tribute to the Great Detective in acknowledgment of the tourism this story has brought to their area. A museum dedicated to Holmes is found in the basement of the English Church, located in what has now been dubbed Conan Doyle Place. A statue of Holmes sits outside, smoking his pipe. Near the falls, there is a memorial plaque to “the most famous detective in the world.” On the other side of the falls, the ledge from where Moriarty is said to have fallen can be found by climbing the path to the top, crossing a bridge, and following the trail down the hill. The ledge is marked in English, German, and French, reading: “At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891. A large cross marks the spot, visible from the viewing platform across the falls. As you can expect, the site attracts the devout in all manner of cosplay, and The Sherlock Holmes Society of London organizes reenactment events of “The Final Problem” for these fans to take part. For the “true Sherlockian,” it’s all part of “The Game.” For everyone else, it’s simply a chance to interact with pop culture.