34. The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893)

The immortal entry in the Norwood Notebook for December 1893 (Collection of Glen Miranker)

This episode, we travel to Switzerland with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson for a showdown with the fiendish Professor Moriarty in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ (1893).

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Adventure_of_the_Final_Problem

You can hear a reading by Greg Wagland here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXnEehQkZGg

And you can listen to the episode here:

A closed-caption version of the episode will appear two days after the episode date at our YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle


Following his marriage to Mary Morstan, Dr Watson has lost touch with the routines of Baker Street and is somewhat surprised when a dishevelled and agitated Sherlock Holmes appears on his doorstep in the Spring of 1891. Seeking a temporary haven and trustworthy company, it appears that Holmes has become embroiled in a perilous contest of wits with one Professor Moriarty, a mathematical genius and unlikely kingpin of London’s criminal underworld. His duel with Holmes is reaching its crisis, and the great detective seeks a European retreat while the police round up the Professor’s gang. He also requests Watson’s company, despite the journey’s inherent danger…

Writing and publication history

Conan Doyle first considered killing off Sherlock Holmes when writing the last of ‘The Adventures’ in December 1891. The detective earned a reprieve, on the entreaties of Conan Doyle’s mother, but it was not long into writing ‘The Memoirs’ that Conan Doyle returned to the idea of disposing of Holmes. In September 1892, he spoke to J. M. Barrie of his plans, and in December 1892 to Frederick Villiers, the war artist for The Graphic.

Conan Doyle was half way through writing ‘The Final Problem’ in April 1892, “after which the gentleman vanishes, nevermore to reappear.” But the precise method of disposing of Holmes was not confirmed until a holiday in Switzerland in August 1893. See below.

On his return to England, Conan Doyle wrote to his publisher to request that the second series be collected as ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ and include ‘The Final Problem.’ It was in this letter, that he also asked for ‘The Cardboard Box’ to be removed from the collection.

The story appeared in The Strand in December 1893, although it had already appeared in many US newspapers since 26 November. It was collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, released on 13 December 1893, which had a print run of 10,000 copies. In his notebook, Conan Doyle recorded the event with two words: “Killed Holmes.”

The August 1893 trip

E. F. "Fred" Benson
In August 1893, the Conan Doyles tagged along with a tour party that had a semi-religious bent. They included: the Revered W. J. Dawson, editor of The Young Man; Silas Hocking, a Cornish writer of morality tales; and E. F. Benson (Fred), writer of supernatural fiction, son of Archbishop E. W. Benson and brother of A. C. Benson, who wrote the words to ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’

1893 was a significant year for E. F. Benson: he became a literary sensation in May with his society novel Dodo; in August, he was present at the discussion of Sherlock Holmes’s demise; and in October, he attended the 601st meeting of the Chit-Chat Society at which M. R. James read two of his famous ghost stories, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and Lost Hearts.

For more on the August trip, see the Reichenbach Irregulars volume Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle and Switzerland’ by the Reichenbach Irregulars (RBI, 2021) which we reviewed here: https://www.doingsofdoyle.com/2021/05/give-me-morning-in-switzerland.html.

Public reaction

Although there appears to have been genuine surprise, Sherlock Holmes’s demise had been widely trailed. The Pall Mall Gazette broke the news in its ‘Literary Notes’ on 30 September and The Strand’s sister publication, Tit-Bits, mentioned the impending “death of Sherlock Holmes” in November.

Nevertheless, Holmes’s death became a zeitgeist moment, as evidenced by the newspaper commentary. For the public reaction, see Boström (Series Editor) and Laffey, Alberstat, Guinn (Editors), Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in the Newspapers, Volumes 3 and 4 (2017) from The Wessex Press (https://www.wessexpress.com/html/swhs.html).

A certain amount of mythology has built up around the death of Sherlock Holmes, including the Royal Family’s distress, The Strand losing 20,000 subscribers overnight, and clerks in the city of London wearing black armbands – the latter almost certainly an invention by Adrian Conan Doyle for the Dickson Carr biography.

Conan Doyle’s intent

G. K. Chesterton's sketch of the final confrontation
Conan Doyle was probably disingenuous when, in Memories and Adventures (1924), he claimed to have been surprised by the public response. His mother was a sound barometer of public opinion and he was aware of the character’s popularity.

He also probably hedged his bets and deliberately left the door open: famously, Holmes’s body was not found. There are perhaps clues in the reference to airguns at the beginning of the story that Conan Doyle had a plan. The final line of the story also paraphrases Plato on the death of Socrates, which is a commentary on immortality and reincarnation.

ACD claimed the Sherlock Holmes stories took his mind from “better things,” by which he meant his historical fiction. The most tangible evidence to support this is probably The Refugees (1893) which had a difficult gestation, partly because it was impacted by ACD taking on the commission for The Memoirs during the writing of the novel. See Episode 13 (https://www.doingsofdoyle.com/2021/04/13-refugees-tale-of-two-continents-1893.html).

As well as changes in Conan Doyle’s literary life, he was going through a period of significant change in his family. In October 1893, his father died, after being treated in a number of institutions for alcoholism and epilepsy. Shortly after his return from Switzerland, his wife Louise was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The latter poses questions about why Conan Doyle included Moriarty’s ruse of the consumptive woman in ‘The Final Problem.’


The Sherlockian notable Dr Gray Chandler Briggs established, through direct correspondence with Conan Doyle, that Moriarty was based on the US criminal Adam Worth, perhaps best known for the theft of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which he retained for 25 years. Worth also robbed a bank by tunnelling from a neighbouring building, perhaps inspiring ‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (1891). Worth’s art theft may have inspired John Hawkesworth when he included an art theft in the Granada adaptation. For more information, see Ben Macintyre’s The Napoleon of Crime (HarperCollins, 2012).

A contemporary suggestion was that Moriarty was based on Honore de Balzac’s Ferragus, the chief of the Devorants, in Histoire des Treize (1833-35). In Through the Magic Door (1907), Conan Doyle claimed not to be enamoured of Balzac, on account of his imposingly prolific output.

There has also been commentary on Moriarty as an Irish name, which may reflect anxiety about Fenian activity in London in the 1870s and 1880s. The name most likely comes from the two Moriarty brothers who attended Stonyhurst with Conan Doyle, one of whom, James, was a talented mathematician. Another possible inspiration was Major General Alfred Drayson, a friend at Southsea, who wrote on astronomy and mathematics, including the dynamics of planetary bodies.

Moriarty as MacGuffin

Alfred H. Wood
Moriarty was conceived as the solution to the ‘final problem’ of how to kill Sherlock Holmes. But Moriarty’s identity is hard to pin down, since all we know of him is second-hand, from Holmes to Watson. Like the public reaction to the death of Sherlock Holmes, myths have grown up around Moriarty, most notably that he is a Professor, when Holmes makes explicit he is “ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity” and pointedly calls him “Mr Moriarty” during their Baker Street confrontation. The ambiguous nature of Moriarty leaves a pleasing gap in our knowledge, perhaps best explored by Nicholas Meyer in The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1974), which itself ignited a boom in pastiche novels.

Moriarty as the mirror of Holmes ties into the popular literary trope of the doppelganger. The evil double featured in James Hogg’s The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ (1840) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

The reference to Moriarty as a crammer for students who could not get into the army is probably a sly dig at Innes, who failed the examination to get into Woolwich. He eventually got into the army thanks to his own crammer, Alfred H. Wood, who became Conan Doyle’s secretary.

Conan Doyle and the invention of the supervillain

Conan Doyle arguably made three great contributions to popular literature: the modernisation and codification of the detective novel; the popularisation of serial characters; and the arch-enemy.

The emergence of the supervillain happened quite quickly after the appearance of Moriarty. Guy Boothy’s Dr Nikola first appeared two years later in A Bid for Fortune: or, Dr Nikola's Vendetta (1895).

Perhaps the most obvious descendant of Moriarty was Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu who first appeared in The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913). The first novel in the series has a very similar opening to ‘The Final Problem,’ when Nayland Smith arrives at the home of Dr Petrie, fearing he is being pursued by Fu Manchu’s organisation.

Ian Fleming replicated both Moriarty in the form of Blofeld and Moriarty’s organisation as SMERSH (Smiert Spionem, “death to spies”) and later SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). Fleming too felt his creation was diverting him from better things and tried several times to dispose of James Bond, starting with the fifth novel From Russia, With Love (1957).

Related works

The Refugees (1893)

‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (1891)

‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’ (1893)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903)

The Valley of Fear (1914)

Next time on Doings of Doyle

We change tack completely to look at ‘A Literary Mosaic’ – also published as ‘Cyprian Overbeck Wells’ – which gives us an insight into Conan Doyle’s own reading. You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Cyprian_Overbeck_Wells._A_Literary_Mosaic