Last night PBS aired the BBC Sherlock episode “The Reichenbach Fall”, which is a modernized variant of the original Doyle short story “The Final Problem”. The Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Movie “A Game of Shadows” used the same story as the core of its inspiration as well. The story is, of course, the classic confrontation between Holmes and his diabolical opposite, the criminal mastermind Prof. James Moriarty, culminating in a fight between the two of them at the top of Reichenbach Falls, where they both plummet to their supposed death.
While I’ve read several Holmes stories, I only got around to reading “The Final Problem” this past week. And maybe it’s a result of highly raised expectations, but I found the actual original story rather wanting.
Here is the problem, in my mind– and admittedly, part of this might be a factor of the literary styles of the time– but this story is all telling, and no showing.
Now, to some degree, that is the case with all Holmes stories, as they are first-person narratives from Watson’s perspective. Watson tells the reader much of what happened, but he’s telling of his own experience. In the case of “The Final Problem”, Watson’s own experience is largely absent. Much of what happens in “Problem” is Holmes telling us that Moriarty exists, and that he’s brilliant, and Holmes totally has a plan to entrap Moriarty. Then said plan didn’t work, as Moriarty slipped the noose. The hows and whats of the plan or Moriarty’s near-capture are never told. Then, while Watson is called away to help a woman having a heart attack– which turns out to be a ruse to pull Watson away– Holmes and Moriarty have an unseen fight in which both are presumed dead.* I’ll have to double check, but Watson might never see Moriarty himself– he only has Holmes’s word that the man exists at all.
What really struck me, reading this story, was what it wasn’t. Namely, there’s nothing in the story of Doyle setting up an epic, final confrontation between two great minds. This isn’t a build up to a grand, well-earned finale. If anything, I read the thrown-together half-effort of a tired writer who was done with a character and wanted him gone. It essentially goes, “Here’s an archnemesis worthy of Holmes… and rocks fall, everyone dies.”
Doyle had lost the passion for the character. This is pretty well documented. And to me, the lack of passion is very clear in “Problem”. But yet, something fantastic happened with this story. In declaring Moriarty a worthy villain for Holmes, he ignited the imaginations of the fans. What could such a man be like? With such little hard data, Moriarty is totally open to interpretation– so much so that Jared Harris and Andrew Scott gave two radically different versions of the character in the same year. (While with Downey and Cumberbatch, though they gave different versions of Holmes, you could easily see the same character DNA at the core.)
I’ve rambled for a bit here, but there is a key question: how does one maintain the passion for a character, for a world, over a long period of time? How does a writer keep it fresh? I can think of several writers that I felt, at least, that they were churning out long-running series more on momentum and demand rather than still having a story that they were burning to tell.
Maybe that’s why I’m big on the long-term planning. It’s easier to maintain that passion, that energy, if there still is story planned. Once you get past the stories you want to tell… then I’m not sure where it can come from.
*- “Presumed” is key, since Doyle did bring back Holmes due to popular demand. He left himself a pretty easy way out, frankly. The BBC producers did not give themselves an easy out, but they also constructed it like an elaborate magic trick, so it’s clear we’ll see the opposite side of it next season.)