Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Report: "The Final Problem" (Doyle, 1893)

“It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes as distinguished.”
Dr. John Watson, “The Final Problem”

Leigh: This story starts off as Watson saying that he's writing the last Holmes adventure ever. That's it. No more after this one. We don't know what happens but we know SOMETHING, something big happens between Sherlock Holmes and a man called Professor Moriarty. One can expect to have something important happen in this story and there isn't much of a lull between Watson's somber intro and Holmes walking into Watson's living room talking about air guns.

This story has to be my favorite of the set. There hasn't been a whole lot of action or adventure in this book and we've been stuck with mostly story time with the conclusion happening off screen. But this one is an adventure as soon as Holmes walks into Watson's home and asks if he can climb over the back garden wall. And we get a bit of a story when Holmes explains to Watson just the heck this Moriarty guy is but I loved it. I know we try not to mention it too often here, but I couldn't read this back and forth between Moriarty and Holmes without thinking of BBC's Sherlock

"This isn't Switzerland." "You really are a genius detective."

And then that ending. To me, the ending is the strongest bit of writing from ACD. It doesn't feel like a "I'm sick of this character, let's chuck him over a cliff," but it really felt like ACD loved this character but needed to move on. It's another time that ACD and Watson seem to be the same person. 

I love this story and I could go on and on just repeating parts I liked but I'll stop before I just copy/paste the whole thing here.

Soooo, whadja think? 

Austin: This was my first time actually reading this story. (As with all of Memoirs). Yet I'm familiar with this one because I've seen adaptations of it. I think the earliest one was a radio drama I heard when I was a young kid. I was a cool kid, obviously.

"The Final Problem" is such an interesting story because it's so different from the rest of his structure. It reminded me a lot of "The Sign of Four" where it's Sherlock and Watson off to have a globe-trotting adventure. Not necessarily a mystery, just an adventure. While those earlier tales had this fun tone to them, this was especially grim. From the first line, Watson warns that this is the end. When Holmes is telling about Professor Moriarty, there is no glee in his voice. He makes it especially clear that London would be a better place without this vile creature.

Then they're off.

We've hinted around this many times where Doyle was tired of the character and wanted to end the series. Even without that behind-the-scenes trivia, there is no second-guessing this feel of finality. Watson has no hope that Holmes cleverly faked anything. This is written as a proper series finale where Holmes gets to accomplish all that he wanted: to rid the world of genius crime. Sherlock Holmes isn't a Jesse James figure; he is a superhero and superheroes should only be defeated by supervillians.

Disney's best villain. Not being sarcastic.

We don't get a lot of Professor Moriarty but just the glimpse is written as very chilling. Especially that wonderful dialog scene.

Now time for the big question. I know this is still the very early age of mysteries, but there is now the universal rule that you can't introduce the murderer in the third act. Did Doyle cheat by not hinting at Moriarty earlier in the run or was it fine that he appeared now?

Leigh: Normally, I would say that Doyle did cheat. How can you have the ultimate villain to our hero that hasn't been introduced to the audience yet? I think there needs to be some sort of hint at a spider in the center of a web of crime if he's going to kill off our hero. Normally. I think in this situation though, it works well. We've talked before about how Holmes is secretive about everything including something as normal as his family so it doesn't surprise me that Holmes would also keep this criminal mastermind from Watson until a time that Watson needed to know. ACD also gets away with it because Holmes mentions crimes that we have heard about that were really planned by Moriarty so it gives the audience a bit of evidence, if you will, that Moriarty has been around for a while, even if we haven't heard of him. 

This is my design.

I agree with what you said about Holmes needing someone of equal superiority to be the one to off him but I feel a little cheated. Holmes is a genius and Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who could rule England if it weren't for that meddling detective. So why did they fall off of a cliff? The final meeting between these two that would determine whether good would conquer evil is a bit of a wrestle and then them falling to their doom. I wanted something more. I know that the audience isn't there to see it and everything is assumed but I wanted a battle of wits between the super geniuses. I wanted something along the lines of the two of them analyzing each other until the weaker one's brain explodes or something. 

Do you think this lack of mental battle was a way to give finality to the death of the character or do you think it was chosen because it was more exciting?

Austin: Their final battle reminds me why we even have a character like Watson. In Agatha Christie novels, Hercule Poirot is never the narrator. The genius is rarely front and center because usually their intellect is greater than the author. How they perceive the world is so different and innovative, we need an audience surrogate so we can relate the actions better. With this story, Doyle introduces a villain of equal intelligence and that is almost impossible to imagine. The two smartest brains in the world in a head to head match.

Now if you're a really ambitious writer, you can try to capture that genius in the writing. We've seen it done on a number of adaptations. Yet I think Doyle did the (ironically) wiser thing in keeping it behind closed doors. Like the dialog said, these are two characters who have already imagined all the possibilities of what the other could say. That leaves it up to our imaginations to what exactly happened. Personally, I like to think that with two men so equally smart that the other thing that was left was to return to animalistic instincts and they just went at each other. (That's how every Lincoln/Douglass debate was settled right?) Them plummeting down together continues their equal battle but also is a glorious image. 

Also it says a lot about Sherlock and Watson. Sherlock knew this would be his death and so he tried to emotionally protect the only person he cared about. He sends him astray and gives him a really powerful letter. The letter is also still a bit cold, as is Sherlock Holmes. 

Damn great story. 

I have nowhere to sneak this in, but I found it really amusing that Mycroft was Watson's driver in disguise.

Later this week, we're finally returning to the title of our blog. I heard a number of interesting things about how they handled the season finale of Elementary so Leigh and I are going to watch the last FOUR episodes to see how this Moriarty arc is handled. Will we forgive the show and be so inspired to catch up on the missing episodes? (Probably not. I'm is still pretty annoyed at that Super Bowl episode.) Are we at least going to watch next season's premiere? (Probably. They just cast Rhys Ifans as Mycroft and they're filming in London.) Find out soon!

And here is Leigh Montano with the final words...

Leigh: RIP Sherlock Holmes

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