Sherlock Holmes, master of deduction, of unmatchable focus and unparalleled intellect, is one of the most infamous literary characters to grace the pages, screen, and our hearts, to this day. And this level of fandom would not be possible without his initial following; the mass of nineteenth century mystery lovers who fought to keep this case-breaker alive. So passionate was his readership, so furious the fervor, that they resurrected him from death by one of the greatest weapons of all time: the pen.
As today is the one hundred and third anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow, so we’re doing a deep dive into the Sherlock Holmes story that almost never was.
After the overwhelming, upset reaction to Holmes’ death in the 1893 short story, The Final Problem, wherein he is pushed off a cliff over the Reichenbach Falls by his nemesis, Moriarty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was persuaded to rewrite the history of the detective’s fall. This decision is even more surprising when his feelings toward his character are taken into account:
“Killed Holmes,” he wrote in his diary. One can imagine Conan Doyle, slicked-back hair shimmering in the candlelight, twirling his ample mustache with glee. He later said of his famous character: “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”
Although Conan Doyle was overstuffed with Sherlock Holmes, his fans were inconsolable and outspoken. The Strand Magazine, in which the Sherlock Holmes stories were printed, lost over 20,000 patrons. Conan Doyle received furious and sometimes downright abusive mail in response to the loss. It has long been reported that London’s young men wore black mourning bands around their arms for a month after the publication of The Final Problem. This sort of retaliation to Holmes’ end was something never before seen in literary history, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a comparable level of outrage and push-back from readers today.
Sherlock Holmes was brought back to life in the 1902 volume The Return of Sherlock Holmes, within The Hound of the Baskervilles (renowned as Conan Doyle’s most popular Holmes story), in which the misunderstanding of Holmes’ demise is explained. In fact, Conan Doyle wrote, it was not Holmes who plummeted to his death but his adversary, Moriarty.
To read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries today, the events surrounding Holmes’ death and resurrection are still almost inconceivable, crafted by a mind of unbelievable intelligence and cunning. It’s no wonder Conan Doyle was tired of the character; it must have taken up all of his mental reserves to write even just one story, let alone fifty-six short stories and four novels in total.
The twisted reveals in each of Conan Doyle’s cases are spectacular to behold, and that’s no doubt the reason that fans fought back against the end of Sherlock Holmes. And their voices were heard. They won that battle, and several more years with the talented detective. The Final Problem, luckily, was not true to its name. Sherlock Holmes didn’t depart until His Last Bow in 1917. But, the real master of deduction was Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle himself; a prolific author capable of unraveling even his own writing.
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