Sherlock Holmes: Faking His Death Is Part of the Myth
Outside of being born in the Victorian era, now is the best time to discover Sherlock Holmes.
With the release of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Sherlock: Reichenbach Fall, and the series end of the show House, we all get to experience what Sherlock Holmes fans experienced after reading The Final Problem - the end of Sherlock Holmes.
At the end of all of these pieces, Sherlock Holmes (or Dr. Gregory House) has found himself in a situation where he must disappear for a while. In the Robert Downey, Jr. movie and the BBC series, it came through the machinations of Professor James Moriarty (or Jimmy Moriarty). In House’s case, it came with a realization that his own behavior had created a situation that he’d be in jail at the worst possible time. In any event, there was a period of uncertainty for all three cases that the protagonist had died.
Fortunately for us, we got to see that Holmes and House had survived their apparent deaths. The media we use to view Holmes allowed us to see his survival.
Now, what I need you as the reader to do is use your imagination for a bit. You need to understand what media was defined as in the Victorian age. There were no movies. There was no television. All they had was print.
The Sherlock Holmes short stories as published in The Strand Magazine were one of the most popular pieces of fiction of the time. And Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill him off.
Doyle killed off Holmes for a simple reason – He hated him.
You have to realize that Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical doctor (like Doctor John Watson) and a spiritualist. When he started his own medical practice, he needed to fill the long hours between patients with some kind of activity. So he took to writing. He decided that he was going to write mystery stories that were based upon his medical mentor, Doctor Joseph Bell. Bell was an amazing diagnostician that amazed his students with his powers of observation and deduction regarding things about his patients.
While the character of Sherlock Holmes gained popularity and made Doyle a rich man, he found his own character cold and calculating. Doyle wanted to work on what he considered a more serious work of historical romances. So after writing two novels and what is now two collections of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), he decided to kill the character off.
Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (canon)
"Fell" over Riechenbach Falls
Never fell. Used the art of baritsu to throw Moriarty off the Falls
Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.)
Tackled Moriarty into Reichenbach Falls
Presumed to use oxygen mask and landed in water
Died when fiery building collapsed
Escaped and is motorcycling with a dying Wilson
Jumped off a building while Watson was watching
Elaborate scheme coordinated with Mycroft to fool assassins
Summary of The Final Problem and The Empty House
Doyle used what is now a popular tool for fiction writers and creates an opposite number for Holmes in the character of Moriarty. Moriarty was on the same intellectual plane as Holmes and every bit as smart as the great detective. While Holmes has lent himself to the police as a consulting detective, Moriarty used his great intellect to plan crimes for criminals. He is never actually part of the crime, just as Holmes is never actually part of the police force that catches the criminals.
Later authors have used the parallels between the pair, Moriarty and his second in command, Col. Sebastian Moran, and the pair of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Where we have a great intellect paired with a loyal military man who’s a crack shot.
In the story, which is required reading for any Holmes fan, The Final Problem, Doyle writes that Holmes has come to the climax of his career and has discovered Moriarty’s existence. He has focused all of his powers to destroying Moriarty and his confederates. Unfortunately, Moriarty has discovered that Holmes is onto him as well.
Moriarty meets Holmes at his Baker Street apartment and reveals that Holmes is indeed on the path to destroying him and getting him caught by the authorities. He gives Holmes one chance to draw off and give up this quest. Should Holmes continue with his investigations, Moriarty would be forced to have him killed one way or another.
Holmes, of course, states that if he were assured of ridding the world of Moriarty, he’d cheerfully pay for it with his life.
Moriarty leaves. From that point onward, there are constant attempts at Holmes’ life. When he sees Watson he informs him that the information he needs to put Moriarty away requires three days to culminate. If he acts too soon, the rest of the network, will escape. What Holmes has to do is keep alive and away from Moriarty’s network for three days.
Here we find an interesting reversal of roles between Holmes and Moriarty. Where normally Holmes would be the hunter for Moriarty, he is now the quarry. Holmes has to come up with devious and sneaky ways to avoid a group of assassins that are looking for him all over England. With the aid of Mycroft Holmes (Holmes' brother), he and Watson are able to escape to the continent and eventually to Germany to spend some time at Reichenbach Falls.
While on the way to see the falls, Watson gets a message that an English woman has fallen ill and would like to see an English doctor. Watson leaves Holmes to aid the woman. This, of course, is a trick from Moriarty’s network to lure Watson away. When Watson discovers the trick, he heads to the waterfall to meet Holmes.
Holmes is not there. Instead, Watson finds a note explaining that Professor Moriarty has graciously allowed him to write him a letter before the two of them “resolve their conflict.” Watson deduces from the footprints in the area that the two of them must have had a fight and fallen over the falls.
After Doyle killed off Holmes, the public went insane. Readers were writing Doyle and threatened his life. Doyle was not going to bring the character back. He finally succeeded in killing him off.
However, fate has a funny sense of humor. As much as Doyle hated his character Holmes, he liked eating and money better. So, while he was not going to bring Holmes back he wrote another novel that took place prior to Holmes’ death – The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The novel generated some income for Doyle, however eventually, he needed more money. Doyle decided for the good of his own livelihood, he’d resurrect Holmes.
How? Readers believed that Holmes fell into a waterfall and got killed. How do you survive that?
Doyle begins another set of short stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes beginning with The Mystery of the Empty House.
It begins with a murder that Watson has been called in for as a Police medical examiner. He meets with a plain clothes detective in a murder investigation of a young man who was shot through the head with a soft nosed revolver bullet. Yet no one was seen near the victim and the door was locked from the inside.
Watson takes some notes at the crime scene for the police and bumps into an old book collector, knocking the old man’s books to the ground. The old man shows up at Watson’s office, offering to sell him some books. Watson turns to the window for a moment and the old man transforms into Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes explains that while it appeared he might have fallen into the waterfalls, Watson had made a bad deduction. Holmes had used his knowledge of art of Baritsu to best Moriarty and threw the Professor into the waterfall. However, Moriarty’s confederates were still watching and Holmes needed to hide and escape. While he watched the police investigate his own death, he could not reveal himself without endangering Watson.
The three year time period that Holmes went missing is called “the Great Hiatus.” Holmes had spent his time seeing the rest of the world while Moriarty’s network were hunted down and incarcerated. It was only now that Holmes felt that he could safely return to London.
Understanding the Myth
Whenever I find anyone who’s new to Sherlock Holmes, I give them a few stories of the canon which I consider “required reading”. Among which are always The Final Problem and The Empty House.
While a good foundation always consists of A Study in Scarlet and A Scandal in Bohemia as an introduction to Holmes and his character before “The Great Hiatus”, he should always understand that Professor Moriarty was not only Holmes' intellectual equal and was the instrument of his downfall (forgive the pun), but also the climax of Holmes' career. I don’t devalue the stories that follow “The Great Hiatus”. What I’m saying is that the character of Holmes entered a new phase of his career.
It happens with many of the more enduring characters in literature. A modern analogy would be the equivalent of the maturation of Harry Potter. Fans of the Potter series can recognize the difference in tone from the first three stories in The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban showed the innocence and almost light stories that you’d expect an adolescent to have. When we get to The Goblet of Fire the story ends on a very dark note with death and an “upping of the stakes” between Harry and the forces of evil.
I remember reading that story and thinking “the party’s over”.
The same can be said at the beginning of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has essentially spent the last three years on the run. He’s come back to wrap up the last bit of business from the Moriarty Network which will allow him to operate in relative safety. Until the last assassin was caught, Holmes had to live in anonymity.
That kind of experience would leave a mark on the character. A comparison can be made with the character of Jack Sparks in Mark Frost’s The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs. In these two stories, which is a fictional account of Arthur Conan Doyle and his inspiration of Sherlock Holmes, Jack Sparks is an agent to the crown who hunts down his opposite number brother (his Moriarty) and both survive a fall from a waterfall. The character returns to Doyle more somber and many shades darker for the experience.
The entirety of these two stories is symbolic of the death and resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. A light character followed by a transformational decent into darkness to be followed by a resurrection full of transformation into a more mature character.
Joseph Campbell would be delighted to see that this story follows The Hero’s Journey in the tradition of most myths. Holmes and Harry Potter emerge transformed after their singular defining events. For Potter it is the final trial of the maze to the Goblet of Fire, facing a resurrected Voldemort, and having to bring back his friend’s corpse back to Hogwarts. For Holmes it was the literal descent into the falls and “The Great Hiatus”.
Just as a large pipe, the deerstalker hat, and the use of cocaine are part of Sherlock Holmes, his death and resurrection are part of his myth.
Those of us who have been following the latest installments into the Holmes mythos, have just seen the Moriarty/Holmes face off in both Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall.
It’s to be expected.
If it didn’t happen now, it would have happened eventually. It had to. With Holmes, we expect a few things from the character. We expect him to be brilliant. We expect him to be flawed. We expect him to rise to each mystery.
And we expect him to fake his death.
Moriarty is a necessary catalyst to all of this. With Holmes nothing short of a dark mirror image of himself could possibly take him down. We can see that Holmes is equally prepared to not only chase criminals but to also act as a man evading capture… as the criminals he hunts. For the story of the Final Problem, we see Holmes play this game of chess with Moriarty where Holmes needs to be the quarry. Both Holmes and Moriarty have to wear the others’ hat in The Final Problem.
Holmes fakes his death and the world cried for his return. When the author would not comply, fate made him bring the great detective back. As we have discovered, this character will no longer rest. Since Doyle left the character in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and His Final Bow, others have taken the pen to find “posthumous” stories written by Watson and modern day tales with a new incarnation of the character.
We will never be rid of him, so long as we have people who observe and deduce.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi