In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes. I say tried, because his attempt at literary homicide (litericide?) was ultimately a failure. By all rights, it should have succeeded. As the writer, Doyle held the power to destroy that which he had created. Holmes, by contrast, was only a make-believe character. His very existence was subject to the whims and intentions of the man from whose imagination he had sprung. Doyle should have been able to kill off his fictional detective with a simple stroke of the pen, but things didn’t go according to plan.
It’s clear from Doyle’s journals and personal correspondence that the idea of offing Sherlock Holmes had been on his mind for at least a couple of years. In November 1891, he wrote to his mother: “I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother’s response was immediate and fervent: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!”
But Arthur Conan Doyle decided to go forward with the deed. He was tired of writing about Holmes, and he wanted to concentrate his energies on historical novels instead. During a vacation trip to Switzerland with his wife, Doyle visited Reichenbach Falls, a breathtaking natural waterfall in the Swiss Alps. Gazing at the 820 foot vertical drop, Doyle realized that he’d found the perfect spot for the death scene of Sherlock Holmes.
The resulting story, ‘The Final Problem,’ was published in the December 1893 edition of Strand Magazine. In it, Holmes battles his greatest opponent, Professor Moriarty. Detective and criminal mastermind struggle atop Reichenbach Falls, and eventually plunge to their mutual deaths. It was the perfect solution. Sherlock Holmes goes out in a blaze of glory; good triumphs over evil (or at least brings it to an end); and Doyle is finally free to move on to other projects.
Doyle was clearly happy to have the deed accomplished. In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.”
If you don’t already know what happened next, you can probably guess the outcome. The fans did not share Doyle’s delight in the demise of Mr. Holmes, and they were not shy about voicing their displeasure. They wrote letters to newspapers and magazines, and (of course) to Arthur Conan Doyle himself, demanding the resurrection of their beloved Sherlock Holmes. Their response could be summed up in the three short sentences written by Doyle’s own mother. You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!
The letters kept coming. (And coming. And coming...) Three years. Five years. Seven years. And still the mail poured in.
Finally, Arthur Conan Doyle gave in to the unrelenting pressure of his readers. In August 1901, Strand Magazine published the first installment of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ Chronologically, the story was set before the fatal incident at Reichenbach Falls. The fans loved the new Holmes tale, but they weren’t going to fall for any of that tricky timeline shit. It wasn’t enough to crank out new Sherlock Holmes material. They insisted; their hero must be brought back from the grave.
In 1903, the year after he was knighted and became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author bowed again to the demands of his fans. He penned a story called ‘The Adventure of the Empty House,’ in which it’s revealed that only Moriarty died at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes, it transpires, faked his own death as a defense against his enemies.
When I first read Empty House in my early teens, it struck me as odd that the intrepid Sherlock Holmes would flee from rock-throwing opponents as he does in this story. It struck me as even stranger that Holmes—who had faced the maniacal genius Professor Moriarty without fear—would spend three years hiding from Colonel Sebastian Moran, one of Moriarty’s underlings. (Imagine Luke Skywalker strolling bravely into battle against Vader, and then going into hiding to escape random Storm Trooper #2973. Not exactly compelling character motivation, is it?)
Back then, I didn’t know about Arthur Conan Doyle’s growing distaste for his famous detective character. I had no idea that Doyle had been soured by his failed bid to rid himself of Holmes. I just knew that the story didn’t work for me. As I delved further into the body of Doyle’s work, I found several more stories which seemed to lack the luster and energy of his best writings. They felt like half-hearted efforts to me. Don’t get me wrong, Sir Arthur was the man. Even his B-game was pretty damned fine, and I don’t pretend to aspire to anything approaching his level of talent. But the Holmes stories after Reichenbach Falls were written under what amounts to literary duress, and I believe Doyle’s lack of enthusiasm is detectable.
I think I was in my late twenties when I learned that ‘The Final Problem’ had been intended as the true end of Sherlock Holmes. I was just beginning to get serious about my own writing right about then, and I suddenly understood what had gone wrong with the later Holmes stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had elevated the desires of his readers above his creative instincts. He had allowed himself to be buffaloed into writing the stories they wanted to read, instead of the stories he wanted to write. In my opinion, he had stopped having fun.
When the significance of that idea hit me, I made a promise to myself that I would always write the stories I want to write. So far, I’ve managed to keep that promise. On at least three occasions, my insistence on sticking to it has cost me major publishing deals. Twice because I refused to dumb-down the plot of a novel to reach a non-existent lowest common denominator among readers; and once because I refused to artificially insert a love story into a plot that didn’t need one. (Don’t get me started about that, ‘cause I’ve got a whole blog-load of ranting to do on the subject.)
The bottom line is this… I enjoy writing. No, I love writing. I intend to continue doing it as long as it continues to be fun. With any luck, this happy little ride will last me the rest of my life. But I understand that I may not be so fortunate. One of these days, I may find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with the dilemma that Arthur Conan Doyle faced in 1893. What do you do when the magic is gone?
If that sad day ever comes, I’ll cash in some of my retirement funds for a ticket to Meiringen, Switzerland. I’ll pack myself a nice lunch, and set out for a spot about two kilometers from the southern town limits. And when no one is looking in my direction, I will drop my word processor down Reichenbach Falls.