Sherlock Holmes Comes Back to Life!


In December 1893, two weeks before Christmas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle committed an appalling crime against literature: He murdered Sherlock Holmes in cold ink. Here’s how it went down, as Sherlock himself might recall the incident had he lived to investigate it:

“My inquiries show beyond all question, dear Watson, that having become bored with me as a character, my author, after several failed assassination attempts in previous drafts, tossed me headlong off the precipice of Reichenbach Falls, at which point I met my demise. It only remains to indicate, dear Watson, that I am most certainly dead.”

Not until the death of Dumbledore would the public again react so viscerally to a fictional, shall we say, passage. Responses spanned from grief (fans took to the streets wearing black armbands) to denial (“Keep Holmes Alive” clubs circulated petitions to reverse Sherlock’s sentence) to anger (one woman stalked Sir Arthur down a London street and thumped him with her umbrella). Strand Magazine, which published the Holmes stories, lost 20 thousand subscribers and received sackloads of hate mail as though with a little editorial fudging—a well-placed ink splotch to break Sherlock’s fall, a loose thread in the binding for him to grab onto—the periodical could have kept him alive. But readers knew all along Conan Doyle was the real culprit: The author turned out to be Holmes’s archenemy more than even Professor Moriarty, with whom the sleuth tumbled to his death.

Eight years later, Sherlock came back to life. Sort of. Doyle brought back the cocaine-addled detective—partly due to public pressure, partly due to a dwindling bankroll—for an interquel (half-prequel, half-sequel): “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1901), a now-classic tale set before Holmes’s death. In 1903 Doyle caved completely: In “The Adventure of the Empty House” it’s revealed that Sherlock never died at all, his death faked to throw off Moriarty’s associates—a nifty act of retroactive twistery that allowed the author to spin out Sherlock stories until his own death in 1930. Since then, there’s been a contingent of Holmes fans that consider this a low move and omit “Empty House”—and all the stories after it—from the Sherlock canon.

Watson: How would you characterize these newly added bits to your corpus of detective tales, Sherlock?

Holmes: Supplementary, dear Watson. Supplementary.

In the last episode of the BBC’s Sherlock, which aired way back in 2012, 11 million viewers saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes plummet to his death from a five-story building. They heard the thud, they saw the blood and they watched Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) take his friend’s pulse and collapse with grief. And yet in the episode’s final scene, there he is again: Sherlock, alive and well, peering Tom-and-Huck-style from the shadows at his grave’s mourners, Watson and their landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Viewers are not grieved or angry (this time it’s no secret that Sherlock comes back to life), but they are cracking curious: How on earth did he fake his death?

Sherlock Holmes comes back to life in the season premiere of Sherlock, airing this Sunday, on Masterpiece on PBS.

Photo courtesy of Everett