The Silent Contest: How Sherlock Holmes Defeated Moriarty and Why Dr. Watson Lied (Part 1)
Dr. Watson lied.
Dr. Watson lied about many of the things that you think you know about Sherlock Holmes, and he did it for a reason.
That is what I realized upon reading all of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the first time, given my experience having investigated real-life crimes for 11 years as a federal prosecutor.
Like many people, I thought I knew a lot about Sherlock Holmes just from his massive presence in pop culture. But when I finally decided to read all of the stories for myself, I was surprised at much of what I read.
Most significantly, the story that I most wanted to read was nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how Sherlock Holmes defeated his nemesis Professor Moriarty. Instead, I found out that the only story in which Moriarty appears — the Adventure of the Final Problem — began with Holmes telling Watson that the investigation was already complete.
It was April 24, 1891, and Holmes and Watson had not seen each other for months. Holmes walked into Watson’s consulting room, “looking even paler and thinner than usual.”
Holmes explained that he has been investigating the secret criminal mastermind of London, Professor Moriarty — the “Napoleon of crime,” “the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city,” “an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.” Holmes said that he spent three months investigating Moriarty without much success, and then Moriarty made “a trip — only a little, little trip,” and that Holmes was on the verge of bringing Moriarty down, clearing more than 40 cases, and seeing Moriarty’s gang convicted and sentenced to death.
If there was time to go through Holmes’ investigation and Moriarty’s counter-moves, Holmes said, “a detailed account of that silent contest” “would take its place as the most brilliant bit of thrust-and-parry work in the history of detection.” Holmes added, “Never have I risen to such a height, and never have I been so hard pressed by an opponent.”
Now we were getting to what I wanted to know. How did Holmes defeat Moriarty? How did he win “that silent contest?” What was that “little trip?”
But there is no time to talk about that, Holmes said. Moriarty is onto him, and he must flee to Europe.
And so, despite all that buildup, The Final Problem never gets around to explaining just what Holmes did to bring down Moriarty. The Final Problem instead explains in excruciating detail how Holmes and Watson made it to the train station, where they switched trains, and how they meandered through Europe for a week, but never gets back to the actual investigation and crime-solving that one generally expects of a Sherlock Holmes story. We end up knowing far more about Holmes’ travels between April 24 and May 4, 1891 than we do about how he brought down his nemesis over the preceding months. We do not even know any crimes that Moriarty actually could have been prosecuted in London for!
What is going on here?
(Some writers, such as Nicholas Meyer and Dominic Streatfield, have suggested that Moriarty did not even exist and might be the feverish result of Holmes’ cocaine addiction. This seems contradicted by Watson’s references to the public trials of Moriarty’s network and the public’s memory of “how completely the evidence which Holmes had accumulated exposed their organization,” as well as Holmes’ references to Moriarty later in life.)
I was disappointed and shocked that Watson and Doyle had simply skipped over what Holmes himself considered his greatest accomplishment. And then, as I continued reading through the stories, I was shocked again.
Not only did Watson gloss over the most interesting part of the Final Problem, he began it with a lie.
According to Watson’s account in the Final Problem, the first time Watson ever heard about Professor Moriarty was on April 24, 1891. After Holmes walked into Watson’s office, Holmes asked Watson to go with him to continental Europe, and then asked a telling question.
Holmes: “You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?”
That was a lie.
We know this is a lie because of another story, the Valley of Fear, which occurred before The Final Problem (sometime in the “early days at the end of the 1880s”) but which was written and published many years later. In this story, Watson reports that Holmes received a letter from someone he describes as his inside source within Professor Moriarty’s organization. Holmes then asked a rephrased version of the same question as before.
Holmes: “You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”
Watson: “The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as he is unknown to the public.”
Two stories, one question, two very different answers. In one version, Watson claims that he knew nothing of Moriarty until April 1891. In another version, Watson says the opposite, admitting that he knew about Moriarty years beforehand.
In real life, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probably just made a mistake. Doyle wrote The Final Problem in 1893 and then wrote the Valley of Fear decades later from 1914 through 1915. He probably just mis-remembered what he had made up so many years before.
Watson, on the other hand, would not have been so careless. For him, this would have been no mere slip of the pen. He cannot have made such a serious mistake about describing such an important event in his and Holmes’ professional life, especially given the contemporaneous notes he supposedly consulted in writing his stories and the details he gives in both stories.
Watson lied. Why?
Before we can answer why Watson lied, let us consider why Watson wrote in the first place. Why would a doctor who was recovering from a war and trying to rebuild his life in London begin writing about a detective who sought no public credit for his works and who was sought out by clients who sometimes went to him in order to retain their anonymity?
It was not for fame or to build up business. Holmes already had clients coming to see him when he first met Watson in A Study in Scarlet. Watson’s stories did not make Holmes widely famous — that happened because of a successful investigation that Watson never wrote up, Holmes’ investigation of the “Netherland-Sumatra Company and the colossal schemes of Baron Maupteruis” in the spring of 1887.
It was not for money. Holmes regularly took on cases without hope of fee, explaining that he took the cases in part to educate himself. And, of course, he apparently had no client at all when he investigated Professor Moriarty.
And it was not to educate the public about Holmes’ “peculiar qualities” and methods. Holmes was already doing that for himself. Holmes’ article about the science of deduction and analysis, “The Book of Life,” had already been published in a magazine shortly after he had moved into 221B Baker Street or even before. In the early to mid 1880s, he had already published monographs on tobacco ashes, footstep tracing, the influence of a trade upon a hand, and ciphers. Holmes did not need someone else to put down his ideas and arguments in writing, especially in the overly dramatic and romantic way that Watson sometimes did.
These explanations do not make sense, especially if one considers the problems that Watson’s writing actually would have caused for Holmes’ work.
Investigations often work best when quiet and without drawing the attention of those who are being investigated. Watson’s writings actually made it more difficult for Holmes to go out into the field and investigate. As Holmes mentions in The Sign of the Four when explaining why he had been dressed as an old man: “[A] good many of the criminal classes begin to know me — especially since our friend here took to publishing some of my cases: so I can only go on the war-path under some simple disguise like this.”
Watson’s writings would have pushed away potential clients who would seek out a private detective precisely because they have scandals or problems that they want to keep hidden and out of view. After all, even when Watson tried to disguise some details of Holmes’ investigations out of respect for the clients, there was more than enough detail for a reader with some familiarity of the subject to read between the lines.
Watson’s early writings also would have alienated the police inspectors whom Holmes worked with and who provided him with some of his most interesting cases. Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade do not come off well in A Study in Scarlet. Would they really bring more cases to Holmes after Watson made them look so bad? Printing Holmes’ private thoughts about the police would not help Holmes much if at all.
So why did Watson write, and why did Watson lie?
Based on The Valley of Fear, by the mid to late 1880s, Sherlock Holmes had already spent years investigating Professor Moriarty without much success. Holmes got occasional notes from the inside source he knew only as “Fred Porlock,” but these were rare and at least one time may have done more harm than good. Holmes had even broken into Professor Moriarty’s home, only to find no records or investigative leads, other than a valuable painting that no legitimate professor could have afforded.
Holmes was in the covert stage of the investigation, a very different stage from many of his other cases, and a very different type of investigation. In many stories, a very specific crime has been committed and completed, and Holmes is asked to help solve that particular crime (whodunnit?). In real life, many criminal investigations actually work another way. The question in these investigations is not who is the criminal, but what is the crime that you can prove that your target committed. Criminals tend to commit more than just one crime, and investigators do not need to prove all of them in order to bring those criminals to justice. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Al Capone — if you cannot get him on racketeering charges, get him on tax charges.
This type of investigation can involve strategic decisions and risk calculations that are not present in many mystery stories. Investigators talk to former employees who are less likely to tell their old boss, subpoena records from banks and companies in ways that are not likely to get back to the target, maybe use undercover agents to develop leads or make recordings, and try to get documents and correspondence without tipping off the targets.
Holmes knew his target, but did not know yet what crimes he could prove up against Moriarty or how he could bring him down. Holmes also knew that going overt would hamper his ability to investigate. Moriarty would be more cautious. Evidence might disappear or be destroyed. People may not talk, or might be killed. An investigation like this had to stay covert until it was fully ready to strike — going overt too soon could backfire and even cost lives.
Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty were heading towards each other, and Holmes was not ready for this to happen. As recounted at the end of the Valley of Fear, he knew that he could take down Professor Moriarty, but not yet. “You must give me more time,” Holmes says, with eyes that “seemed to be looking far into the future,” according to Watson. “You must give me time!”
That is where the Valley of Fear ends, and that is where Watson’s writing career probably began.
Watson wrote to give Holmes that time. Watson wrote not to build Holmes up, but to poke some holes in Holmes’ growing reputation and to lull Moriarty’s suspicions. And Watson did that in part by lying about who Holmes was and what he was doing, just as many who have conducted covert investigations have sometimes lied. The United States Supreme Court even recognized in a 1932 decision that such “artifice and stratagem” can sometimes be “employed to catch those engaged in criminal enterprises,” and sometimes is not only “permitted” but “essential.”
I will come back to Watson’s lies in the Final Problem and other stories in future essays, but want to explain one of his biggest lies here, one that I believe helps prove my point — that Holmes was addicted to cocaine.
Holmes’ use of cocaine is mentioned several times in the stories and novels written and published before The Final Problem. And each time, the explanation given for Holmes’ cocaine use is boredom and ennui.
The Sign of the Four: “May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?” “None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. … What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace”
A Scandal in Bohemia: “He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.
The Yellow Face: “… and he only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.”
Lies, all lies.
According to Watson, Holmes used cocaine in the 1880s because he lacked a real challenge. Because he was bored. But we know from the Final Problem and the Valley of Fear that Holmes had not been oblivious to Moriarty’s existence all those years and that he had not been bored. Instead, we learn that Holmes had deduced the existence of “some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law” and been conscious of this power for “years past.” He had endeavored for years to learn more about this power and followed a “thousand cunning windings” to learn its name, the name of Moriarty.
Watson lied in the early Holmes stories about Holmes’ boredom and about Holmes’ lack of knowledge of Moriarty. He lied so Moriarty would not know that Holmes was onto him. And to make the lie even better, Watson added the lie about the cocaine. Moriarty would have heard about the great detective who had missed all clues about his existence and was addicted to cocaine, and he would have dismissed Holmes as a threat.
Moreover, Watson’s lying explains away some of the contradictions otherwise existing in the stories. For example, cocaine’s effect on Holmes is described in A Scandal in Bohemia as inducing drowsiness and in the Sign of the Four as making Holmes languid. These are not cocaine’s typical effects, but likely the result of Watson (and Doyle) writing about something which they actually had no firsthand experience. Moreover, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson specifically writes that he saw no indication that Holmes was addicted to any drug:
“I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic; had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”
And finally, significantly, Holmes is never described as using cocaine again after the Final Problem. If Holmes had actually used cocaine out of boredom, such boredom would have been understandable and even deserved after defeating London’s criminal mastermind, and the cocaine use would have continued. Instead, the only mention after the Final Problem of Holmes’ drug use is Watson’s off-hand reference in the Missing Three-Quarter to having weaned Holmes off his old “drug mania.”
Watson did not come up with the lie about the cocaine when he first wrote A Study in Scarlet. He only turned to that as Holmes’ investigation proceeded and as Holmes became more well-known to the criminal underworld, as noted in The Sign of the Four, the first story mentioning cocaine use.
Understanding the Silent Contest — realizing that Watson’s actions in writing stories and some of his apparent mistakes could themselves be steps in Holmes’ investigation of Moriarty — changed the way that I viewed the Sherlock Holmes stories.
This is just the first of several essays in which I am going to explore what Holmes called the Silent Contest, his greatest accomplishment. What was really going on in the Sherlock Holmes stories that we know and love? Now that we know that Watson lied about some things, are there alternative explanations that make more sense? How did Holmes really bring down his nemesis? What really happened in April and May 1891?
At the end of all this, I think you will agree with me that Holmes and Watson were even smarter and cleverer than you thought. And I think you’ll see that the story behind the stories might be even more dramatic and compelling than you had thought.