On the Trail, Over the Falls
Sherlock Holmes’ near-death experience in Switzerland
By Catherine Batac Walder Born and raised in the Philippines, Catherine Batac Walder moved across Norway, Finland, and Portugal from 2005-2007 for a European MPhil. scholarship. She worked as a research group administrator at the department of earth sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, until October 2010 when her first child was born.
For any Sherlock Holmes follower, the serene Alps, with all its constant white glow and unwavering welcome, might only be a distraction from the need to keep an eye out for rocks being pushed deliberately and dark figures appearing out of nowhere. The Alps are a reminder of the famous detective’s ‘last days’ before the tragic encounter with his archenemy, Professor James Moriarty.
The memorials erected in his name and the accessibility of stories in several languages have supported the popularity of Holmes for over one hundred and twenty years. As a devotee who spent years following the detective’s trail, first through the canon and whatever pastiche I could get hold of, then through travels, coming to Switzerland felt like the culmination, the highlight of my Holmesian adventure.
It was to Switzerland that creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought his characters in the story “The Final Problem.” Holmes, recognizing the threat to his life after meddling in some of Moriarty’s illegal affairs, made an important decision to spend a week away from London—to the continent. As Mrs. Watson was away at that time, Dr. Watson, his friend and confidant, came along with him. Off they went, to the beautiful Alpine village of Meiringen.
So quaint is Meiringen, it had charmed Conan Doyle into setting most of “The Final Problem” there and killing off the great detective in the nearby Reichenbach Falls. We know now that Holmes had been ingeniously brought back in the succeeding stories, due to public insistence. Appearing in the December 1893 issue of The Strand, “The Final Problem” caused uproar among readers. Thousands of people cancelled their subscriptions, mirroring the fate of the magazine to that of Holmes himself, only eighteen months after “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first of the fifty-six Sherlock short stories, had been published. Holmes’ return meant that he had actually survived whereas Moriarty had fallen to his death in Reichenbach, hence the commemorative plaque by the falls describing their supposed struggle, with this inscription in English, German, and French:
At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.
Daniel Stashower, author of Teller of Tales, wrote that it is fairly certain Conan Doyle brought his wife Louisa to Switzerland in August of 1893 so that he could give a series of lectures in Lucerne. At Conan Doyle’s stop in Meiringen to see the famous Reichenbach Falls, he finally found a place to make a “worthy tomb for poor Sherlock.” By that time he had grown tired of his creation. He wanted to get rid of him to focus on more serious writing, but he didn't yet know how the detective would make a final exit. His frustration growing, Conan Doyle felt that even if the stories had brought fame and fortune to him, they had also prevented him from doing greater things.
Some Holmes scholars would argue Conan Doyle had visited Switzerland more than once. An avid hiker and sportsman, the doctor-author was among the first to introduce skiing, or “ski-running” as it was called at the time, to the locals, having seen it in Norway sometime before. And whether they have the evidence or not, Park Hotel du Sauvage in Meiringen is firm in its belief that Conan Doyle and his wife stayed at the hotel, and that the author renamed the hotel in his work of fiction. Another plaque can be seen at the entrance, stating:
In this hotel, called by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the “Englischer Hof” Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson spent the night of 3rd/4th May 1891.
It was from here that Mr. Holmes left for the fatal encounter at the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.