The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Adventure of the Final Problem" (1893)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Final Problem” was written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is known today primarily for The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, he was a competent professional writer who produced a range of material, his best work being his historical adventures rather than his mysteries. “The Adventure of the Final Problem” is one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories, being the only one to feature a villain on the same level as Holmes himself.

"The Final Problem” begins with Watson explaining why he is telling the story of Holmes’ end. Watson had intended to keep silent about it, but “the recent letters in which Colonel James Moriarty defends the memory of his brother”1 forces Watson to explain the circumstances behind Holmes’ death. Watson’s recent marriage and new private practice had led him to drift out of touch with Holmes, but one spring day Holmes walks into Watson’s consulting room. Holmes looks pale and drawn and is afraid of someone shooting him through one of Watson’s windows. Holmes asks Watson if he could take a trip to the Continent for a week, which Watson is happy to do. Holmes explains that he has been working to capture Professor Moriarty, “of mathematical celebrity¼the Napoleon of Crime¼the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.”2 Holmes admits that Moriarty is Holmes’ “intellectual equal,” and that it took Holmes more than three months to gather enough evidence and prepare matters for the arrest of Moriarty and his entire operation.

Unfortunately, Moriarty really is Holmes’ intellectual equal and is well aware of what Holmes is doing. Moriarty visited Holmes in his room, to deliver a warning that if Holmes does not stop he faces an “inevitable destruction” from Moriarty’s organization. After that meeting several attempts were made on Holmes’ life, and Holmes now wants to go to the Continent until Moriarty is arrested. The following morning they leave, and en route to Dover they read in the newspaper that Holmes’ rooms at Baker Street were set on fire. Holmes and Watson reach Brussels and discover that Moriarty escaped arrest, though his gang did not. Holmes urges Watson to return home, as Holmes is certain that Moriarty will now devote himself entirely to destroying Holmes. Watson naturally refuses. The two friends spend a week traveling through Switzerland, but while they are visiting the Reichenbach Falls Watson is lured away from Holmes by a forged plea for help. When Watson he returns he finds only a note from Holmes which states that Moriarty has arrived “for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us”3 and contains Holmes’ farewell to Watson. Watson observes the scene, practices Holmes-style deductions, and concludes that Moriarty and Holmes wrestled and fell into the Falls and died.

Doyle intended “The Final Problem” to be the final Sherlock Holmes story, although public demand eventually forced Doyle to bring Holmes back a decade later. “The Final Problem” is the best of the early Holmes stories. It has a brevity which The Hound of the Baskervilles, among others, does not, and it has a better plot than most previous Holmes stories. “The Final Problem” is the first Holmes story in which all of the elements necessary to make an individual Holmes story great come together. “The Final Problem” has an excellent combination of action and explication. The long early description of Holmes’ duel with Moriarty does not kill the story’s momentum but instead heightens the anticipation for what is to come as well as establishes the basic tension of the story. From the start of “The Final Problem” the reader knows that Holmes is dead, but Watson holds off on explaining the details, and the early explanation of the Holmes-Moriarty duel gives the reader enough information to feel anxious for Holmes while still teasing the reader about the story’s resolution. It is this anxiety for Holmes, and the rare humanizing of Holmes, which sets “The Final Problem” above its peers. The reader sees Holmes startled, admitting fear, and bleeding from having barked his knuckles on a tough; these moments of vulnerability on Holmes’ part are almost unknown in previous Holmes stories. “The Final Problem” has pith, excitement, excellent pacing, and a rare (if understated) display of Holmes’ affection for Watson, but the threat to Holmes, usually missing from the stories, is what really sets “The Final Problem” apart from the rest of the Holmesian canon.

What makes “The Final Problem” significant rather than merely excellent is the character of Professor Moriarty himself. There were formidable villains before Moriarty: Wilkie Collins’ Count Fosco, from The Woman in White, and Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Dr. Quartz (see: The Dr. Quartz Mysteries) are both memorable and well-written. But Moriarty was the first significant villain in English crime and mystery fiction who was English, rather than foreign (see: The Yellow Peril). Moriarty was also the first significant combination of scientist and crime lord, although Moriarty was a mathematician rather than a chemist or physicist. Unusually for mystery fiction of the 1890s, Moriarty is a thoroughly modern arch-villain; there is nothing of the Gothic evildoer in him. Moriarty dresses in a modern fashion, speaks in the vernacular of Holmes’ (and Doyle’s) contemporaries, and is employed in a realistic fashion. Doyle’s readership had no doubt that men like Moriarty existed, or at least could exist, in the city outside their windows. (The exploits of Adam Worth (1844-1902), the model for Moriarty,4 were well-known to the English reading audience. So too, the crimes of “Baron” Maximilian Shinburn (1842-1916), Adam Worth’s main rival). Nor does Moriarty have any of the characteristics of the Gothic Hero-Villain. Moriarty seems never to have struggled with his passions. He lacks them. Rather, he commits crimes because it pleases him to do so. Not for Moriarty any wrestling with temptation—crime is a conscious and deliberate choice on his part, and he seems not to have regretted it.

The influence of Moriarty, and the extent to which he is remembered and emulated, is due to this combination of modernity, realism (for all of Count Fosco’s wonderfulness he is a creature of sensation literature and not someone the reader could reasonably expect to meet in real life), and personality. Moriarty has none of the bombast of the mad Gothic barons, the uncontrollable lust of the Gothic monks, the one-dimensional melodrama and stage villainy of the story paper villains, or the self-conscious, self-promoting angst of Decadent bad men. Doyle takes the more inspired route, combining understatement—Moriarty’s statements to Holmes are reasonable, calm, and almost genially threatening, and Holmes’ reaction to them is that Moriarty’s “soft, precise fashion of speech leaves a conviction of sincerity which a mere bully could not produce”5 --with a memorable physical description:

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from too much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.6

While twentieth century popular fiction would develop a number of different villain archetypes, the “genius crime boss” archetype, which was common in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and which thrives today in the persons of Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr.’s Kingpin (for Marvel Comics) and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Lex Luthor (for DC Comics), was based on Moriarty. Future pop culture arch-villains may differ in particulars from Moriarty, but his shadow still touches them.

Recommended Edition

Print: Arthur Conan Doyle and Leslie Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.



1 Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” Arthur Conan Doyle and Leslie Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 714.

2 Doyle, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” 719.

3 Doyle, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” 741.

4 See Ben Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010) for more on the fascinating and formidable Mr. Worth.

5 Doyle, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” 720.

 6 Doyle, “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” 720.


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