Sherlock Holmes: Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem

The Final Problem
Illustration of “The Final Problem” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I have once again fallen behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, which seems to have become a refrain. In any case, I read two short stories this morning, “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Final Problem.” I don’t claim to know a whole lot about it, but it’s my feeling that both are among the most popular stories—I can say with certainty that the latter is.

The first story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” concerns Holmes’s attempt to turn criminal himself and steal incriminating letters purchased and collected by odious master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. A client engages Holmes to help her negotiate with Milverton, who is threatening to divulge the contents of her letters to her fiancé, but Milverton will not accept her terms. Holmes disguises himself as a plumber and gains the confidence (and affection) of Milverton’s maid. Holmes enlists Watson to help him burgle the Milverton House, but the two are nearly discovered when Milverton enters his study right after Holmes has cracked his safe. However, Milverton has another surprise visitor that night, and the adventure doesn’t end up exactly as Holmes planned.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem” is famous for being Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off his famous detective. Holmes is pitted against criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, who unsuccessfully attempts to convince Holmes to stop pursuing him. Holmes meets his match in Moriarty, who will stop at nothing to defeat Holmes. After several attempts are made on Holmes’s life at the behest of Moriarty’s gang, Holmes convinces Watson to travel with him to mainland Europe, where Holmes ostensibly dies at Reichenbach Falls, taking his nemesis over the falls with him. Of course, Conan Doyle would later famously resurrect his great detective amid public outcry.

I enjoyed both of these stories quite a bit and would rank both of them among the best I’ve read. The BBC series Sherlock adapted both stories. Charles Augustus Milverton becomes Charles Augustus Magnussen, and he is played by the brilliant Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Hannibal actor Mads Mikkelsen, in the episode “His Last Vow.” Magnussen is a master blackmailer like Milverton but keeps his information locked in his “mind palace. Sherlock winds up shooting Magnussen and has a great deal of trouble getting out of being punished for the crime. I was interested to learn that Milverton was based on a real person: Charles Augustus Howell, who was an art dealer by trade and is believed to have blackmailed many of his former friends. Of course, Sherlock adapted “The Final Problem” in one of its most popular episodes, “The Reichenbach Fall.” The episode features Sherlock faking his suicide to convince John Watson that he is dead and then going into hiding as his own Moriarty kills himself on the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Sherlock wonders for the rest of the series if Moriarty has managed to escape death and is hiding, biding his time until he can defeat Holmes for once and for all.

“Charles Augustus Milverton” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Final Problem” Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the thirtieth and thirty-first stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Empty House.”

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