The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893
The magic trick:
Writing an amazingly tense and amazingly modern showdown scene between Sherlock and the diabolical Professor Moriarty
Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, and we’re doing something a little different here on the SSMT site. This story certainly has nothing to do with the New Year’s holiday. Instead, it’s a classic Sherlock Holmes adventure, and it seems like a fitting way to say goodbye to the year because it’s the story that ends the first run of Sherlock stories. Doyle had written a ton of Sherlock fiction in a very short span, and this is the story that allowed him to take a break. Then tomorrow, we’ll ring in the new year with the Sherlock story that announced his triumphant return, “The Empty House.”
“The Final Problem” is unlike any other Sherlock story. It is clear from the start of Watson’s writing that there is a heft to this story that we don’t feel in the other mysteries – a dark connection to a larger story arc. It’s also not a story that is tied to London. The story finds Sherlock and Watson racing all over Europe in what is more like a pure adventure or thriller than any kind of mystery.
Most crucially, though, it introduces the world to Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ arch nemesis, who, surprisingly, never appears in any other Sherlock story. His fame as an iconic villain is a testament then to just how amazing the portrayal is in this story.
It’s really just one scene. Sherlock is relating to Watson what has happened after the fact. The fact that he is scared, nervous and potentially intimidated by Moriarty’s intellect speaks volumes after so many stories to this point that paint Sherlock with untouchable courage and confidence. The two talk. Moriarty makes threats. Sherlock counters. It’s incredibly cinematic. It really feels like, in one scene, Doyle has invented the modern action movie and the entire superhero comic book industry. It’s amazing. I wonder if he knew at the time just how good this scene was. Probably. And that’s quite a trick on Doyle’s part.
“My nerves are fairly proof, Watson, but I must confess to a start when I saw the very man who had been so much in my thoughts standing there on my thresh-hold. His appearance was quite familiar to me. He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in this head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. He peered at me with great curiosity in his puckered eyes.
“‘You have less frontal development that I should have expected,’ said he, at last. ‘It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one’s dressing-gown.’
“The fact is that upon his entrance I had instantly recognized the extreme personal danger in which I lay. The only conceivable escape for him lay in silencing my tongue. In an instant I had slipped the revolved from the drawer into my pocket, and was covering him through the cloth. At his remark I drew the weapon out and laid it cocked upon the table. He still smiled and blinked, but there was something about his eyes which made me feel very glad that I had it there.
“‘You evidently don’t know me,’ said he.
“‘On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’
“‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he.
“‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.
“‘You stand fast?’
“He clapped his hand into his pocket, and I raised the pistol from the table. But he merely drew out a memorandum-book in which he had scribbled some dates.
“‘You crossed my patch on the 4th of January,’ said he. ‘On the 23d you incommoded me; by the middle of February I was seriously inconvenienced by you; at the end of March I was absolutely hampered in my plans; and now, at the close of April, I find myself placed in such a position through your continual persecution that I am in positive danger of losing my liberty. The situation is becoming an impossible one.’
“‘Have you any suggestion to make?’ I asked.
“‘You must drop it, Mr. Holmes,’ said he, swaying his face about. ‘You really must, you know.’
“‘After Monday,’ said I.
“‘Tut, tut,’ said he. ‘I am quite sure that a man of your intelligence will see that there can be but one outcome to this affair. It is necessary that you should withdraw. You have worked things in such a fashion that we have only one resource. It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure. You smile, sir, but I assure you that it really would.’
“‘Danger is part of my trade,’ I remarked.
“‘That is not danger,’ said he. ‘It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize. You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden under foot.’
“‘I am afraid,’ said I, rising, ‘that in the pleasure of this conversation I am neglecting business of importance which awaits me elsewhere.’
“He rose also and looked at me in silence, shaking his head sadly.
“‘Well, well,’ said he, at last. ‘It seems a pity, but I have done what I could. I know every move of your game. You can do nothing before Monday. It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.’
“‘You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty,’ said I. ‘Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.’
“‘I can promise you the one, but not the other,’ he snarled, and so turned his rounded back upon me, and went peering and blinking out of the room.
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