The tumbling cascades of the Reichenbach Falls loom large in the many worlds of Sherlock Holmes and the works of Conan Doyle, second only to 221b Baker St as a touchstone. The Falls, though, are not only a memorable setting but also a powerful symbol, of an author tired of his creation, of the most infamous case of detecticide in literature, and of a resurrection. They are also, unlike 221b, real.
Why the Reichenbach Falls? Why didn’t Conan Doyle do what the writers of Sherlock did in the episode that almost borrowed their name – simply push him off a high building in London? Well, Conan Doyle loved Switzerland. He was a frequent visitor because of his first wife’s failing health- she had tuberculosis – and he credited the country’s mountain air for keeping her alive against all expectations until 1906.
It was in August 1893, during a summer stay in Lucerne, that Doyle complained about the burdensome detective he had created and his wish to “find a suitable place to kill him”. It was then that he first heard about the waterfalls near the little town of Meiringen. They were suggested as a suitable site for infamy by either a Reverend W J Dawson, a great admirer of Doyle’s historical novels (the ones nobody reads now), or Sir Henry Lunn, the travel industry pioneer. Whoever put the seed in his mind for Holmes’s final resting place, the writer travelled from Lucerne to the place of “horrible beauty”, researching the story that would be published at Christmas 1893, thus ruining the festive season for his many fans. And 112 years later, I followed in his footsteps.
The Reichenbach Falls is hardly the only waterfall in the beautiful Bernese Oberland – there are places where the surrounding mountains appear to weep multiple silvery flumes of water – but it is tucked away from prying eyes. Doyle (and Holmes and Watson) would have had a reasonably lengthy hike from the town, because the funicular that takes so many Sherlockians up now wasn’t opened until 1899. Many still prefer to take the path up, and it’s certainly a rewarding climb, the rush of water audible but mostly invisible until the last section. Back then it must have seemed a suitably remote setting for a murder. And the Reichenbach Falls themselves? Do they disappoint?
Well, only if you expect them to be a mini-Niagara as in the second Guy Ritchie film. The two-stage Falls don’t actually seem that thundering or impressive at first sight, just a twisting plume of water that has punched a hole in one of the sidewalls. But as I reached the metal bridge that runs between the two sections and looked back down 120 feet at the spray-slicked “coal black rocks” and the pool below, a touch of vertigo took hold and it was momentarily transformed into “a dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam”.
As to the exact spot where the mighty struggle with Moriarty took place, it isn’t easy to pinpoint from either Doyle’s descriptions or Sidney Paget’s illustrations. The local tourist board has designated a location, but I fear that is because they are worried about tourists trying to get too close on an unsafe ledge and mimicking Moriarty’s final moments (Sherlock, as we found out ten years later in The Empty House, never actually went over).
I spent several hours up there, contemplating the gush of waters that Watson claimed “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour ”. I wondered if they were affecting me because for the weeks before my visit I had been “channelling” Conan Doyle – taking some of ACD’s large catalogue of short stories and (hopefully seamlessly) inserting mostly Watson and some Holmes into the action, thus creating a batch of “new” tales.
Whatever the reason, I came away pleased I had seen the Falls at last but imbued with a sense of melancholia that belied the magnificent surroundings. Perhaps it was the thought that Doyle could become so bored and oppressed by the sort of unique character, in terms of both originality and lasting popularity, that the rest of us can only dream of creating.
One thing I did decide on while up there. When I come to the end of my Dr Watson series, I will have Holmes and Watson, perhaps in a rare flash of sentimentality for Sherlock, return to the Falls one last time. And who knows what will happen on that visit?
(NB there are two Falls – upper and lower, so treated as a plural here).
The Case Of The Six Watsons, a half-dozen new short stories by Robert Ryan, based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is available now on Kindle, free for a limited period. A Study in Murder (Simon & Schuster), a Dr Watson novel, is out in paperback now.