by James Chase
When the action of 'The Final Problem' commences, Holmes has been weaving a net around Moriarty for some four months at least. Holmes tells us that:
if a detailed account of that silent contest could be written, it would take its place as the most brilliant bit of thrust-and-parry work in the history of detection. Never have I risen to such a height, and never have I been so hard pressed by an opponent. He cut deep, and yet I just undercut him.
Thrilling words; I'm surely not alone in wishing Holmes had been more forthcoming on the details of the duel. But we are not left entirely in the dark. 'The Final Problem' gives us an account of the last three days of Holmes's work, followed by a tailpiece dealing with Moriarty's revenge. We can get at least some glimpse of the nature of the silent contest before by looking at the way Holmes and Moriarty lock horns in this story itself.
Unfortunately, the actions of Holmes and Moriarty in 'The Final Problem' are less than brilliant. If the last three-days-worth are a reliable guide to the whole, the contestants were only evenly matched because each incompetently failed to follow up the obvious blunders of the other. These are hard words; yet, as I shall argue below, the orthodox interpretation of Watson's narrative in this story can lead to no other conclusion. Happily there is a less orthodox reading on which we can save the necessary assumption of Holmes's general brilliance. I will be the first to admit that the reading savours of the tendentious, but I can see no other way around the feeble-mindedness the orthodox view imposes on Holmes in this story.
Odd as this seems, it is odder still that Moriarty has apparently not even planned for the murder of Holmes. This is surely the explanation of his bungled assassination attempts on Holmes in London: the runaway coach, the bricks, the thug and the fire. These seem slipshod in execution, especially for a man of Moriarty's experience. Then again, on each of the first two occasions Holmes's survival came down to luck, rather than wit, and in the third case it hangs on his boxing ability. Neither Holmes nor Moriarty shines here, but these attacks have a preliminary air, as if hastily put together by the Professor that afternoon.
Similarly odd is Moriarty's conduct of the interview with Holmes itself. He can think of nothing more dire than to threaten Holmes's life. It takes very little knowledge of human nature to realise that a public-spirited hero like Holmes will glory in defying this, but apparently Moriarty lacks that knowledge. As a criminal mastermind, it is surprising that Moriarty did not consider the simple and effective alternative of threatening others if Holmes did not desist. This is hardly a new technique: blackmailers and gangsters regularly proceed by threatening the safety or reputation of others, in order that their intended victim will meet their demands. Holmes is later baulked by a straightforward case of blackmail (in 'Charles Augustus Milverton'), and Moriarty can surely do exactly the same. Again, Moriarty could threaten the lives of innocent third parties by simple murder, or mass poisoning, or the like. This would be far more effective than simply leaning on Holmes's courage. Whether Holmes would have given in is an interesting question; the point is, however, that Moriarty should have found out.
Only two explanations come to my mind. First, most of the interview doesn't happen in public: Holmes tells us that the following passage occurred in their conversation:
'All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,' said he.
Moriarty's stronger cards might, in effect, have been a subject of common thought here, and rejected by Holmes as such. The difficulty with this theory is that Moriarty still thinks it worth his while to go on to explicitly use the counterproductive threat to Holmes's life. If he intends to make anything explicit, it would surely be a threat to blow up an orphanage, or something of that kind.
So we seem forced to the second, seemingly bizarre, explanation: Moriarty has a code of honour, and it forbids him from hurting innocent third parties. There are, in fact, indications of a related code of honour in which he plays fair against Holmes - he riskily visits Holmes to give him a chance, before assassination, to cease the pursuit; he consents to hand-to-hand combat at Reichenbach instead of simply shooting his foe or letting Moran have a go at him; he expresses his genuine admiration at Holmes's work (an admiration Holmes seems to doubt). We might be able to include in this code a prohibition on hurting other parties except by way of business, and thus explain both his forbearance in killing Holmes before the interview, and the interview itself. But this is somewhat disappointing. A Napoleon of Crime ought be rational if anyone is, and a threat to innocent third parties at this stage of the contest is hardly gratuitous: it seems to be the only way he can make Holmes have second thoughts about his pursuit. Moreover, while a code of honour with a clause requiring fair play with Holmes might (just, possibly) arise out of Moriarty's sense of duelling a worthy opponent, similar explanations can hardly explain why Moriarty would avoid harming innocent third parties.
In the events on display to us Holmes, beyond leaving the train at Canterbury, barely seems to put a foot right. The overall effect is quite staggering. I will first briefly set out three points where Holmes seems to do badly, before considering the ways in which we might avoid such an unpalatable conclusion.
(1) Endangering Watson
Holmes, in talking to Watson at the latter's home, says that his presence overnight would make him a dangerous guest, and he shuts the windows against air guns. In other words, he has warrant for the belief that Moriarty may have traced him to Watson's house. He declines to stay, because it would endanger Watson, and yet when he leaves he does so as inconspicuously as possible. In Watson's account:
It was in vain that I asked Holmes to remain for the evening. It was evident to me that he thought he might bring trouble to the roof he was under, and that that was the motive which impelled him to go. With a few hurried words as to our plans for the morrow he rose and came out with me into the garden, clambering over the wall which leads into Mortimer Street, and immediately whistling for a hansom, in which I heard him drive away.
Holmes thus does his best to leave without detection. If successful, this, of course, puts Watson's life at danger precisely as much as if Holmes had stayed the night there, as Moriarty's men will have seen him go in but not come out, and will presumably continue with any murderous attempt as if Holmes is present. So Holmes has excellent reason to believe that Moriarty will attack Watson's house that night. Yet he does not warn Watson.
(2) Avoiding tails
The plan Holmes gives Watson for getting to Victoria Station without detection is extremely weak. It begins:
You will dispatch whatever luggage you intend to take by a trusty messenger unaddressed to Victoria to-night. In the morning you will...
Note that the two things they are trying to get to Victoria Station from Watson's house - Watson's luggage and his person - go there separately. The luggage is to be taken, simply by a 'trusty messenger,' to Victoria that night. Watson is to go the next day by a complicated route, designed to throw off tails. If Watson's house is being watched (as Holmes is assuming), there is an excellent chance that the trusty messenger will be followed, his or her actions in depositing the luggage at Victoria will be noted, and the obvious inference will be drawn by Moriarty. Moriarty then need only have an agent at Victoria to make Watson's devious route entirely pointless; regardless of his twistings, the agent will see Watson at Victoria (and presumably would then board his train, see him and Holmes leave the train at Canterbury, would leave the train himself and be able to wave down Moriarty's special at that station. Holmes would then be in a bind).
The plan is as strong as its weakest link, and the weakest link is seriously at fault. That it worked shows only that Moriarty does as badly as Holmes. In fact, since Watson's house was not attacked on the night of 24th April (see (1) above), we know that Moriarty's difficulty was in tracking Holmes to Watson's house. Of course this does not excuse Holmes, who thinks it likely he has been traced.
(3) Loitering in the Rhone Valley
As Holmes learns by telegram on the Monday Watson and he are in Strasbourg, the entire gang has been arrested save Moriarty. Yet Holmes does not immediately give Inspector Paterson the information that "the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed 'Moriarty'." In fact, he and Watson then wander for over a week (while Paterson presumably waits by the letterbox at the Yard), survive a murder attempt, and then only with Moriarty's permission does Holmes, at the last minute, days late, leave Watson the note which tells Paterson what to do to destroy Moriarty's criminal empire. This is wretched work: points (1) and (2) may be explained away as slips due to Holmes's nervous state, but this one goes to the heart of Holmes's claim to be minimally competent at his job.
Moriarty hardly comes out of this well either. He lets Holmes write that note, and in any case, could have taken the papers days ago, when his men tried arson at Baker Street. Presumably they broke in to do this, and failed to notice, in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope inscribed 'Moriarty,' the papers they needed to destroy to be safe.
Each of these problems is avoidable, but only at the cost of some conjectural reconstruction of those details of the situation that Watson has not informed us of.
Consider, first, the serious charge of loitering ((3) above). An obvious way to redeem Holmes is to assume that Paterson only needs either the testimony of Holmes in person, or the blue envelope. After all, it is only when Holmes considers there is a good chance he will be unable to return to give testimony that he mentions the envelope. But this theory simply doesn't hold: Holmes has had evidence for some time that he may be killed unexpectedly (such as the rockfall in the Gemmi Pass), and it is surely imprudent of him not to have told Paterson before, or, indeed, to have left the papers so negligently in the first place. The obvious conclusion is that Holmes is not acting irrationally: he has already told Scotland Yard about the location of the papers, and he has surely not been so foolhardy as to leave them, unattended, at Baker Street.
The latter conclusion gives rise to no problem, as the address of the pigeonhole containing the papers is not mentioned. But how can we reconcile the former with the fact that Inspector Paterson needs to know where the papers are? The most plausible assumption seems to me that Paterson, of whom we have never heard before, is new to the case, and the previous inspector (doubtless killed in Moriarty's last movements in London) had known where they were, but had died before passing the information on to Paterson.
I think we can go on to name the deceased inspector. Gregson is described by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet as the "smartest of the Scotland Yarders," and as such is the obvious policeman for Holmes to turn to when his investigation of Moriarty neared completion. Moreover, it is a curious coincidence that Gregson does not appear in any story published after the Return, except 'Wisteria Lodge' and 'The Red Circle'. The dating problems with the former are notorious (Baring-Gould dates it as before 'The Final Problem'), and the date of the latter is a matter of real disagreement among chronologists (there is almost no internal evidence to go on). In contrast, Gregson's colleague Lestrade, equally prominent as Gregson before 'The Final Problem', remains just as prominent after 'The Empty House' while Gregson disappears from view. Given this sudden disappearance at around this time of one of the two most prominent detectives in Scotland Yard, together with the appearance of the unknown Paterson, it seems fair to conclude that Gregson has been killed by Moriarty while working with Holmes on this case, and that this motivates Holmes to give such basic information to Paterson at such a late stage. So far, so good. A minor problem is that, if the papers were not at Baker Street, then Paterson is presumably still ignorant of the address at which he can find this pigeonhole. It can't be a pigeonhole in Gregson's desk at Scotland Yard, because then Holmes would hardly need to suggest to Paterson, taking over Gregson's work, to look in pigeonhole M. An admittedly speculative, but consistent, solution is that the pigeonhole Holmes refers to is a real pigeonhole - a hole in a pigeonloft. Luckily both Paterson and Gregson were pigeon-fanciers (a popular pastime in London then), and Paterson knew where to look. Moriarty's men no doubt ransacked Baker Street to no avail.
Point (2) may also be avoided by reading the words Watson uses in a different way: this time, we save the mark if we assume that the first mention of 'Victoria' in the quote given above is a woman's, rather than a railway station's, name. One might here suspect the Queen, but the evidence is surely against this. Not only is it most unlikely that the Queen would play a part in a diversionary maneouvre like this or that Holmes would address her so familiarly, but Holmes's only suspected contact with Her Imperial Majesty is in 'The Bruce-Partington Plans', after his return; although his actions in 'The Second Stain' and 'The Naval Treaty' shortly before 'The Final Problem' would certainly have given him friends in high places. It is surely more parsimonious to link this 'Victoria' to our solution to point (3) by supposing that one of Holmes's army of assistants, a woman named Victoria, is helping him in cleaning up Moriarty's gang. Surely he occasionally needed some help in such a duel, and there is ample evidence elsewhere in the Canon that Holmes was happy to work through agents on occasion. Watson's luggage is therefore taken to Victoria's place, and she, by circuitous routes, takes it to the station, throwing off her followers on the way. As Watson is unlikely to be able to rustle up a "trusty messenger" at that late hour, it is probable, by the way, that Victoria sends a messenger to call upon Watson to receive the luggage, and that Holmes later on told Watson all about it in their brief (unreported) "few hurried words" before Holmes goes to jump the garden wall.
Although Victoria thus almost entirely escapes our notice, we do know something about her. Given her patriotic name, Victoria was probably born some time after the accession of the queen and is thus in her mid fifties, or younger, at the time of 'The Final Problem'. Moreover, if Holmes wishes to keep the blue envelope safe and yet to take as few people into his confidence as possible, he has probably given it to her to look after, and she therefore has a pigeonloft or is associated with pigeons. This, together with the likelihood that Holmes needed a co-worker in those parts of London where Moriarty was strongest, suggest that Victoria's home is in the East End (a pigeon and dog breeding stronghold).
Since Paterson has to look in the pigeonloft, rather than contact Victoria, to get the envelope, one might think that she has met with Gregson's fate in the course of the duel with Moriarty. But surely, as a pigeon-trainer, Victoria was still alive in 1895, as Holmes was then able to take Wilson the notorious canary trainer, one of the plague spots of East London (see 'Black Peter'), and probably needed expert help to do it. I take it, therefore, that Paterson is to look in pigeonhole M of the Scotland Yard pigeonloft, where one of Victoria's carrier pigeons has been sent with the blue envelope, as it is too dangerous for Victoria herself to take it through East End streets to Scotland Yard. F.H.Wenham's 1866 paper "On Aerial Locomotion and the Laws by which Heavy Bodies impelled through Air are Sustained" points out that the carrier pigeon of Victorian times is the common bird with the strongest "power of flight", as measured by ability to lift perpendicularly, and as measured by ratio of muscle strength to body size, so the blue envelope could have been quite large.
It is regrettable that Watson's narrative - written at a time of strong emotion - does not clarify the ambiguity by pointing out Holmes was using a different tone of voice in saying 'Victoria' each time (once in naming his assistance, the other time in naming a railway station). But on no other assumption can I find a way to absolve Holmes of the charge of gross incompetence. In passing, a final objection here might be drawn from Ronald Knox's remark that Holmes is never known to use a woman's first name in a pre-Return story. This is easily disposed of; in 'The Beryl Coronet', Holmes refers to the niece of his client as "Miss Mary Holder" to her face, and as "your niece Mary" on another occasion. His use of "Victoria" is thus not beyond precedent.
Finally, (1) remains. Here I think that all we can do is assume that Holmes knows, somehow, that he has arrived without detection, but fears that since his arrival at Watson's, Moriarty's men, who are hunting for him, will have staked out Watson's home to see if he leaves. This explains his closing the shutters against air guns, and his assurance that his slipping away undetected does not thereby endanger Watson. Of course, he could equally have stayed the night without endangering Watson, but he had to get away to arrange the luggage with Victoria and the carriage with Mycroft, make his will, dispose of his property, and buy a cassock and a priest's hat, and rather than explain all of that to Watson, who would have probably wanted to come along, he decided to use the excellent excuse of danger to go alone.