I can’t imagine with what joy readers viewed in 1903 the return of Sherlock Holmes (I hope Wikipedia has that date right) in The Empty House. It follows the tragedy of The Final Problem where Holmes is presumed dead, lost beneath the Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty (see the previous post for a synopsis of the two stories). It is certainly one of the best stories because it shows the deep bond between Holmes and his Boswell, Dr. John H. Watson. Edward Hardwicke’s portrayal of Watson seeing the friend he thought dead is stunning, and it must have been an exceedingly difficult challenge because he had only stepped into the role of Watson after the departure of David Burke. And yet you completely accept Hardwicke as Watson. Just brilliant.
“The instant that the Professor had disappeared, it struck me what a really extraordinarily lucky chance Fate had placed in my way. I knew that Moriarty was not the only man who had sworn my death. There were at least three others whose desire for vengeance upon me would only be increased by the death of their leader. They were all most dangerous men. One or other would certainly get me. On the other hand, if all the world was convinced that I was dead they would take liberties, these men, they would soon lay themselves open, and sooner or later I could destroy them. Then it would be time for me to announce that I was still in the land of the living. So rapidly does the brain act that I believe I had thought this all out before Professor Moriarty had reached the bottom of the Reichenbach Fall.”
So with his enemies believing he is dead, Holmes is able to act freely. And yet two paragraphs later:
“A huge rock, falling from above, boomed past me, struck the path, and bounded over into the chasm. For an instant I thought that it was an accident, but a moment later, looking up, I saw a man’s head against the darkening sky, and another stone struck the very ledge upon which I was stretched, within a foot of my head. Of course, the meaning of this was obvious. Moriarty had not been alone. A confederate — and even that one glance had told me how dangerous a man that confederate was—had kept guard while the Professor had attacked me.”
As it turns out, this confederate is Colonel Sebastian Moran, the adversary Holmes will face in EMPT. He is Moriarty’s chief lieutenant who with Moriarty, escaped the net Holmes had drawn in London over the gang.
So think about that: Moriarty’s lieutenant knows Holmes is alive. So why then does Holmes disappear for three years? There is absolutely no need for him to be gone because his charade is exposed from the moment of its inception.
What could Holmes’ motivation then be for being gone for three years? What was he escaping from? It certainly wasn’t Moriarty. We also learn:
“Having concluded this to my satisfaction and learning that only one of my enemies [Moran] was now left in London, I was about to return when my movements were hastened by the news of this very remarkable Park Lane Mystery [the death of Ronald Adair] …”
In other words, there was only one man left of Moriarty’s gang; the man who had seen him survive. If I hadn’t just written all that nice stuff about the bond between Holmes and Watson, I’d be tempted to say Holmes just wanted to be rid of the good doctor. And is it a coincidence Holmes returns after the “sad bereavement” Watson suffered, which most readers interpret as the death of Mrs. Watson, the former Mary Morstan? Sorry, I digress, but if you start thinking about the fact that there was no real need for Holmes to pretend to be dead, then his treatment of Watson seems very cruel.
OK, getting back on track, very obviously, Holmes just needed to get out of town and as I submitted in the previous article, I don’t think it had anything to do with Moriarty because I very much doubt Moriarty existed.
Upon his arrest, Moran mentions not a word about Moriarty. In fact he says little other than “you clever, clever fiend” and never addresses Holmes by name. Is it possible he doesn’t even know Holmes’ identity? Yes, if we are to believe Holmes’ account, Moran should know him by sight, but at this point, I don’t believe a word Holmes is saying.
My misgivings are further multiplied in this exchange with Lestrade:
“Got him! Got whom, Mr. Holmes?”
“The man that the whole force has been seeking in vain — Colonel Sebastian Moran, who shot the Honourable Ronald Adair with an expanding bullet from an air-gun through the open window of the second-floor front of No. 427 Park Lane, upon the thirtieth of last month. That’s the charge, Lestrade. And now, Watson, if you can endure the draught from a broken window, I think that half an hour in my study over a cigar may afford you some profitable amusement.”
Lestrade is obviously unaware of Moran’s identity, and yet in FINA, we know that Holmes left the dismantling of Moriarty’s gang in the hands of the police. It is possible that Lestrade (or Gregson) was not involved in the matter, but I still find this suspicious.
As I mentioned before, all these plot holes have inspired many interesting pastiches explaining the real meaning behind the Great Hiatus. Perhaps Holmes was acting as a foreign agent for his brother; perhaps he was being treated by Sigmund Freud; perhaps he was escaping the persecution of the criminal enterprise that he himself had created.
Obviously it little matters. The story stands the test of time and without it, Holmes would not be “free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”