Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Not-So-Final Problem

Although I'd never read it before, I was generally familiar with what I was going to read in "The Adventure of the Final Problem." This was the story in which Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Professor Moriarty and killed off the great Sherlock Holmes.

From what I have read, Doyle felt that writing Holmes stories was too base, too pulp, and that the effort was keeping him from more serious writing. He felt compelled to kill off his creation so that he might move on, and "The Final Problem" was crafted specifically for the purpose. What he didn't anticipate was the reaction of his fans.

It seems to me that a modern version of the situation might be when the writers of a long-running television show are trying to craft the perfect series finale. Many fans have a wildly different idea of what would be the appropriate ending than what the writers themselves plan to deliver. Doyle, of course, didn't have the advantage (or disadvantage?) of the internet; what fan letters he might have received couldn't really have provided him detailed insight into what his fans might expect of a Sherlock Holmes finale. (After all, they didn't even know the end was coming.) Doyle could only offer what he wanted in a finale. But the trouble is, all he really wanted was "out." And so "The Final Problem" is actually a rather unsatisfying ending for the great detective.

Doyle takes great pains in the story to spell out how he believes he has the perfect ending for Holmes. No less than four times in the narrative, Holmes states point blank that if only he could take out Moriarty, he would consider his life's work complete. Holmes even says to Moriarty himself that he'd willingly give his life to assure that end result. It's Doyle's message to his readers: Holmes is alright with this end, so you should be too.

That premise is sound enough. The problem is that we don't actually get to see that end. When the climax at Reichenbach Falls arrives, Watson hikes an hour back down the mountain under false pretenses and isn't there to witness the final confrontation. When he realizes he's been duped and returns to the scene, he finds only Holmes' trademark hat, and a hastily scrawled farewell letter that Holmes says Moriarty allowed him to write before the two fought to the death. Watson reads the signs (as Holmes himself would have done, he writes), and can only conclude that the two men went over the falls together.

We the readers are thus cheated out of the finality of seeing Holmes' actual death. We have only Watson's post hoc interpretation of events. And frankly, given how often Watson (as written by Doyle) has posited theories of crimes that Holmes dismissed as just this side of stupid, Watson is simply an unreliable source of information. The overall takeaway from the story is thus one of: "That's it? That can't be it!" It's no wonder fan outcry was intense enough to compel Doyle to eventually resurrect his character for further adventures.

Parts of the story do work. Moriarty is a clever creation; it's little wonder that the character so captured the imagination of later writers who would adapt the Holmes universe. An "evil version" of Sherlock Holmes, equally skilled and clever, a "Napoleon of crime." What's not to love? Also great is the tone of the narrative, as told by Watson. His grief over the loss of his friend is well realized through the repressed, "stiff upper lip" ideals of the time and place.

But the ending isn't the only flaw. Moriarty's villainy is rather abstract, and established by Holmes' account of the man rather than through any objective examples of his plots. An important Macguffin is largely unexplained: Holmes says he must go into hiding for three days in order to ensnare all the minions in Moriarty's web, but there's no hint as to why this is, or how the wait will accomplish this end.

Perhaps strangely, reading "The Final Problem" actually gave me a greater appreciation for just how smartly the BBC series Sherlock treated their story of Moriarty. They shored up many of the flaws in the original, and twisted others to their advantage. Moriarty was built up as a villain in early episodes, in advanced of his first appearance rather than half-heartedly insinuated into past tales as Doyle does. Moriarty displays his evil in stark action and not in the mere abstract, most dramatically in "The Great Game." And then the climactic episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," pays everything off brilliantly. Doyle's plotting oversight, that we have only Holmes' word of Moriarty's villainy, becomes a major plot point. And then Watson is there in person to witness Holmes' "death," which seems quite definitive, inescapable even, compared to Doyle's loosely woven original.

I think in his rush to be rid of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle didn't deliver the finale his creation deserved. Fortunately for him (though he might not have seen it that way), it wasn't really the end. The long shadow cast by Moriarty makes it hard to give "The Final Problem" a truly weak grade, but I'd call it a B- at best.

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