For seven years, Sherlock Holmes was the undisputed babyface champion of popular fiction in the late Victorian era. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote twenty-four short stories and two novels, each of which represented a seemingly impossible challenge that Holmes would overcome to reinforce his superiority over his morally dubious adversaries and entertain audiences who sat on the edge of their seats asking, “How will he solve this one?” or “How will he get out of this?” Holmes’ enemies varied from rich to poor, intelligent to brutish, gentlemanly to beastly, but each of them challenged Holmes in a fresh way that brought out something different in the heroic consulting detective.
All runs on top, even great runs on top, must come to an end, however. It is just as much a writer or booker’s responsibility to move on from a character as it is to create and build them up. Even the best characters hit a point after cycles of repetition in which they no longer entertain or challenge their creator – this is why long-running comic books and TV shows have extensive, rotating groups of writers. More importantly, the ability of stale characters to draw money is a rapidly diminishing return. Rather than allow their old favorites to become an anchor that prevents their work from moving on, authors must reshape or remove elements of their storytelling that have run their course.
Conan Doyle, tired of chronicling the exploits of a hero with too much wit and too few flaws, did the logical but unthinkable in his 1893 story “The Final Problem:” he killed off the character who had transformed him from a young doctor to a national literary stalwart. Holmes received a hero’s sendoff. He faced his most worthy adversary in the form of James Moriarty, a man whose super-intellect matched Holmes’ own and whose vast criminal network suggested he was the puppeteer of all crime in England – a stand-in for the devil himself.
In a move out of classical epic, Holmes faced a trek across continental Europe to reach the place at which he would face off with his ultimate foe. When the two men arrived at Reichenbach Falls, they engaged in decisive, single, hand-to-hand combat, a pure test of their strength and resolve. Finally, like the ultimate literary good guy (Jesus Christ himself), Holmes conquered evil, willingly giving up his life to save polite English society from a sinister, scheming genius. It was the kind of ending written to bring a tear to your eye and, with time, closure to your mind and soul.
To Conan Doyle’s surprise and horror, his well-crafted sendoff for the man who had been has top champion did not get over. In fact, the death of Sherlock Holmes was one of the most universally unpopular booking decisions in literary history. Fans still loved Holmes and wanted to continue their journey with him, in spite of his creator’s burnout. It was a decision that damaged the profitability of Conan Doyle’s overall writing enterprise.
Eight years later, Holmes was back to life, first in a “previously untold” story from before his death (The Hound of the Baskervilles novel) and then in the short story “The Empty House,” which retconned his death away entirely. Conan Doyle’s resurrected hero starred in over 30 more short stories before his creator’s death in 1930. Maybe Conan Doyle brought back Holmes out of desire to give the fans what they wanted. Maybe, after more than a half-decade away from the character, he regained the enthusiasm with which he had pushed Holmes in his early years. Or, maybe it was because he wanted the money that he knew was still in the Holmes brand. Whichever the case, it’s all wrestling.