2009-05-28 / Local & State

The Curious Incident Of Conan Doyle's 150th

By Lyn Shepard CONTRIBUTOR TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

MEIRINGEN, Switzerland - The Scottish physician and mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle had grown bored with his sleuth hero and resolved to "kill him off" in 1893 here in the Swiss Alps.

But Sherlock Holmes fans the world over would have none of it. Their outcry became so vocal that Conan Doyle eventually had to yield, giving the Scotland Yard consultant a new lease on life in later works. His change of heart put this alpine town on the literary map.

Meiringen and its nearby Reichenbach Falls serve as what local Swiss-Germans call the "Tatort" - the scene of the crime. So, as Conan Doyle's 150th birthday beckoned on May 22, admirers of his detective creation made pilgrimages here to pay the author homage.

One beneficiary of Holmes's remarkable feat, Ferdinand Salverda, loves the "fatal attraction" Meiringen poses for such tourists. Salverda directs both the local Sherlock Holmes Museum and the adjacent Park Hotel du Sauvage, a favorite gathering place for Sherlock Holmes Society visitors. More than 200 such societies have sprung up around the world.

The spirit of Conan Doyle's master detective, says Salverda, remains "alive and well" in the town where Holmes sought to escape his pursuing archenemy Prof. James Moriarty - the "Napoleon of crime."

"We receive more than 800 'Sherlock' guests a year," Salverda says. "And they're not just the British and French. They come from every continent.

The Japanese, for instance, are huge 'Sherlock' fans. So are the Australians."

An American Sherlockian, John Bergquist lends support to Salverda's impression of Holmes's Japanese following. He says the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club with more than 1,000 members remains the largest worldwide.

Americans - with nearly 1,500 society members - make up the largest contingent of Sherlockians, far more than the 195 currently registered in Britain or the 217 in France.

Those who retrace their hero's steps to Meiringen will surely pay respect to both Sherlock and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the local museum, which recreates the study at 221B Baker Street. It was there that the detective and his physician sidekick, Dr. John Watson, shared living quarters.

The Meiringen museum is a near replica of the Holmes museum near Regent's Park in London. "Everything here is authentic to the last detail," the museum manager explains during a guided tour, "but it looks lived in - as if the landlady, Mrs. Hudson had not yet tidied up."

Visitors, of course, will be drawn to the towering Reichenbach Falls. It was there at some 400 feet above the Aare Gorge that Holmes and Professor Moriarty engaged in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle. In "The Final Problem," Dr. Watson described the falls as a "fearsome place," the site Conan Doyle resolved would be where Holmes's career would end.

Fittingly, Holmes and Watson were tourists themselves as they sought to evade Moriarty and his gang, staying overnight at a Meiringen hotel, the Englischer Hof. Salverda says Conan Doyle and his wife actually stayed at the current Park Hotel du Sauvage and the author simply renamed it the Englischer Hof for his fictitious account.

But how did Conan Doyle, under duress from the revered detective's worldwide fans, manage to resurrect Sherlock years later in a way that satisfied his following? As the author allows Watson to explain in "The Empty House," the physician, after marrying, had left his Baker Street flat. He faints in shock when Holmes reappears at his new home.

Yet the police consultant explains his absence as a ruse to mislead Moriarty's henchmen. He had left Watson in the dark for his own safety.

When Holmes tripped the gang leader with an artful baritsu move at the waterfall, the professor had indeed taken a fatal plunge into the whirlpool of the Aare Gorge. But Moriarty's agents remained at large (even in serene Switzerland), so the sleuth had to lie low.

After managing to reach the gorge on foot, Holmes followed its trail to safety and disappeared - first to Italy, then to Tibet, Persia, and the Sudan. Finally a murder that baffled Scotland Yard brought its star criminologist back to London and reunited him with Watson.

Conan Doyle, who had hoped to dispose of Sherlock and focus on serious writing, felt thwarted. But there was one consolation. By 1902 the physician-author had become Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, knighted by King Edward VII.

Ironically, the honor owed to the writer's service as a pamphleteer supporting Britain during the Boer War. Actually a Holmes fan himself, King Edward greatly admired the author's creative flair. But the knighthood paid tribute to Conan Doyle's patriotism, not his inspiration in championing world literature's first great detective.

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