The curious case of the Sherlock pilgrims

Why have Sherlock Holmes fans gathered in Switzerland to recreate their hero’s final hours?
October 31, 2012

To be a pilgrim: each dressed as a particular character from Sherlock Holmes, fans assemble for a portrait

I have just arrived. I am standing in the square in the small Swiss valley town of Meiringen. On all sides, fir trees and high alpine meadows give way to cragged grey faces of rock that are veined in ice. Here and there louring clouds snag the serrated peaks.

“What’s going on?” I ask the Swiss woman next to me.

“I think they’re starting,” she replies, confidentially.

“Starting what?”

But now a brass band embarks upon some deafening mountain lament and nothing further can be heard.

I fall back upon my powers of observation and deduction. A rotund cardinal comports himself across the cobbles in full scarlet regalia to converse with a man who appears to be some kind of itinerant manure shoveller. A chubby boy in the guise of a 19th century mountain guide sits on a sedan chair with his accordion; from time to time and for no reason, he pops on a false beard, then pops it off again, the elastic cutting into his cheeks. A sly, fastidious man is half-introduced. His name is Snork, he says, or Stark or Hark or Bark or Snark—it’s impossible to hear him until the music stops; at which moment, I catch only the end of his sentence “… and so this is where they invented meringue.’”

“My name is Peter Steiler,” shouts an elderly Swiss man in a lemon-coloured bowler hat. “I am a very intelligent man.’”

General laughter across the square. Mocking? Indulgent? It’s hard to be sure —though I feel I must join in. A man rises. He is the mayor. Another man rises. He is also the mayor. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a number of underpowered mopeds coming very slowly towards us, the riders kitted out like Hell’s Angels—handlebar moustaches, goggles. Oddly sinister, they skirt the square.

“There are two mayors,” whispers the Swiss woman. “They are here to greet...”—she inhales slowly—“…the pilgrims.”

“Two mayors.” I nod. “What are the mopeds doing?”

“The slow race,” she says.

Another man at the front is speaking. He looks like Sherlock Holmes. He says: “Special thanks go to His Majesty the King of Bohemia for covering the steam train.” Murmurs of approval, especially from a woman who looks much like Queen Victoria.

With more stridency, the first man cuts in again: “My name is Peter Steiler. I am a very intelligent man.”

Snork sniggers. The fat boy pings his beard. A sinister looking man in white tie taps a black cane. I can deduce nothing. The thought occurs that I should escape now, perhaps, lie low in Zurich for a while, reckon out a new purpose in life. But the last train has gone and dusk is drifting down the mountains. A fat moped rider catches my eye and bounces slowly up and down on his seat as if to show me how he likes to make love.

“Shall we mingle?” Snork breathes.

* * *

What am I doing? It’s a good question. Ostensibly, I am attending what might be described—in the very loosest terms—as a re-enactment of “The Final Problem” organised by The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. As you may or may not recall, “The Final Problem” is the Holmes story, first published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893, in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off his hero following a death struggle with his great enemy, Moriarty, at the precipitous Reichenbach falls. You may also recall that Conan Doyle later revived Holmes and that, in fact, the problem was not final.

Great. But who are “the pilgrims”?

Well, the pilgrims comprise some 70 or so persons from around the world who have chosen to journey to Meiringen, situated just beneath the falls, in order to witness this re-enactment. I use the word “pilgrims” because that is how they bill themselves; and, be in no doubt, this is a pilgrimage, this is fervour, this is religious, this is beautiful, unintelligible, and insane.

For one thing, throughout the “event,” the pilgrims are all dressed as characters—major and minor—from the Holmes stories. Most of the costumes are elaborate, painstaking, and (I’ve no doubt) accurate. Thus, whenever I go anywhere, I go with characters like Peter Steiler (“a very intelligent man”); Fitzroy Simpson (“honest as the day is long”); Arthur H Staunton (a “rising young forger”); Mr Sandeford (“of Reading”); Sir Henry Baskerville, Mrs Hudson, Moriarty, Baron Adelbert Gruner, et cetera et cetera. Somewhere behind the scenes, I’m told, there lurks a logistical mastermind of international reach and authority who ensures that no two people represent the same character. All the same, several of the pilgrims like to change costumes—some of them several times; some of them several times a day.

For another thing, the pilgrims speak—or attempt to speak—in the cadences of Victorian English: “Ah, sir, I deduce you must be a gentleman of the press.” It’s not that impressive a deduction, mind you, since the only other people in Meiringen are the baffled Swiss citizenry. Unless, of course, you count the 770 mysterious moped riders with false moustaches that ceaselessly lap the town, neither speeding up, nor slowing down.

* * *

Dinner at The Englischer Hof, the belle époque hotel in Meiringen (now actually called the Parkhotel du Sauvage) at which Holmes and Watson stayed the night before that fateful encounter at the falls. It is day two. I find myself speaking to a man styling himself as a Hindu Servant. Except that he isn’t—he’s Edwin van der Flaes. He is Canadian. He says he should be wearing his turban. Then he tells me that, “in real life there’s no such thing as a Hindu servant—but that’s the way it is.” What exactly he means by “real life” is profoundly unclear.

I ask whether he might be the chairman of the Canadian Sherlock Holmes society. But—as we strain to understand one another—the pilgrims grow more restless and we find that we are continually interrupted by men and women standing up to deliver random cries of the following nature and tone.

Shouting: “My name is Peter Steiler. I am a very intelligent man!”

Rousing: “Colonel Carruthers, are you with me?”

Stage Whisper: “The man Holmes has been a serious inconvenience to me.”

(Here, I might ask another question and Edwin might start to reply.)

Declamatory: “The assassination of my lodger cannot come soon enough!”

Urgent: “Miss Violet Smith may like to lead the singing.” (Here I might catch Edwin saying something like “1978.”)

Vindictive: “My name is Peter Steiler. I am a very intelligent man!”

Vindicated: “Ha, my father’s duster is up for auction with a reserve of twenty guineas!”

Vinegary: “For a small consideration, you may have the photograph, sir.”

I like Edwin a great deal. But we get no further because we are suddenly overwhelmed by a passing tide of buffet-bound pilgrims seeking the infamous Zurcher Geschnetzeltes—some kind of schnitzel, I surmise, though impenetrably disguised in cream.

When I re-emerge, I am next to a tall man who tells me his name is Olaf Maurer. He twinkles. Actually, he says, his name is Baron Von Herling. Again: I am not clear as to which is real, which fantasy. He is president of the German Sherlock Holmes Society. He was pleased to meet Queen Victoria, he says. I’m struck by a paradox, which I dare not share: that he looks to me the most like Sherlock Holmes of anyone here.

I ask him if we are indeed eating schnitzel.

But again, I get no clear reply because now people are starting to sing. It is a song I recognise and don’t recognise. Von Herling shouts through the confusion and the uproar: it’s called “Moriarty’s Lament.” The tune, though, is “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” “My body lies under the water Immersed at the foot of the Fall If only I’d done what I oughter…”

The night thickens, consumes, closes in. Cardinal Tosca is pressing his card upon me—it gives his home address as “Palazzo Morti.” Emilia Lucca—or Marina Stajic, from New York—is “in real life” a pathologist: “I prefer to talk poison,” she says. Moriarty is on the move, his face as pale and malevolent as the schnitzel sauce. With gathering alarm, I realise that the pilgrims have an entire songbook. “Down Goes Moriarty” (to the tune of “Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?”), “Moriarty’s Dream” (“Waiting at the Church”), “My Name is Peter Steiler” (“McNamara’s Band”). Wildly, I flee the Sauvage.

* * *

The final day of our pilgrimage begins with the bewildering sound of beeping and buzzing beneath my narrow window. I’m late. But, once outside, I can find no way to cross the swarm of mopeds in order to catch the train that will take me the single stop back to Meiringen. They throng the road, two and three abreast, doing a stolid 20 miles an hour while their riders squint and grimace in a mockery of speed and excess. Still, they refuse to stop, go faster or go slower. I’m due at the Reichenbach Falls. The mountains rise in clear skies; it’s a fine day for the death of Holmes. Except, of course, not actually Holmes and not actually his death.

I step into the road and part the mopeds.

The falls themselves are impressive. The sun flashes in the water roaring down from above and a fine mist hangs in the alpine air. I catch myself thinking how refreshing and invigorating it must be—at long last—to confront one’s final problem in the shape of a single killable person. On the narrow and precarious path, the female head of the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club is standing beside the president of the French-speaking Swiss Sherlock society. A woman tells me that her father “is being supplied with monkey glands from Prague.” There is some debate as to whether the “services for gentlemen” provided by a certain Kitty Winter may or may not have been enjoyed by The Illustrious Client (really the Prince of Wales, but not really).

I’ve been riding the funicular with Colonel Moran—some kind of “lottery shipper” from nearby Lausanne (really, really). Amidst all the eccentricity, he stands out as one of the most devotedly out to lunch. He seems to be trying to escape from himself—more obviously, or more explicitly, than the others. Why has he come on this pilgrimage? “For two weeks,” he says, “I was stuck at my desk. Then I began to smoke—one pipe per story—until I could feel no longer Swiss but Scottish like Conan Doyle.” He smokes a (real) pipe as he talks. He wears the (real) kilt of the Black Watch and has a (real) beard such as might be seen in a Grimm’s fairy tale. Colonel Moran, in the stories, works for Moriarty. But, in “real life,” now that he’s here, Moran is sick of it: “Moriarty, he never pays me, he just says ‘kill, kill, kill.’ I say these are not my problems. Ach… what is the real problem?”

“You mean what is the final problem?” I offer.

He nods slowly. “Yes, the final problem… what is it really about?”

I contemplate both this question and the scene before me.

I have come to like the pilgrims a good deal. They’re warm-hearted, engaging and amusing people, which is more than can be said for the moped brethren. There are many from the legal profession—Moriarty is a practising barrister; Cardinal Tosca and Queen Victoria (who are married) are retired from the bar. Sherlock Holmes, I learn, is an ex-head teacher—and is (disconcertingly) married to Mrs Hudson. Watson works for Lloyd’s of London. The strangest and most impressive folk are those who have come the furthest—not least the two ladies from the aforementioned Japan Sherlock Holmes Club (founded in 1977; about 1000 members), who do not, I think, speak English and who are posing as “Baritsu Assistants”—this being some kind of martial art that Holmes knew and that saved him in his struggle with Moriarty on the falls. There are also policemen, toxicologists, bookmakers, engineers, historians, and many who—nobly—refuse to admit to any other existence save that of their character. If these people have anything in common, beyond the obvious, it is that they are all comfortable with a very elastic sense of reality… As am I, as am I.

And so we make a happy throng as we stand and listen to a messenger arrive and ask Doctor Watson back to The Englischer Hof to treat a woman who has suddenly been taken ill. (This “really happens,” someone assures me; meaning, of course, that it happens in the story.) Then we watch Moriarty and Holmes grapple in slow motion for the hundreds of cameras. There are no lines for the characters to deliver—because, of course, the final struggle is never witnessed: Watson, the narrator, having returned to the hotel, can only piece together what has happened afterwards. (Conan Doyle would not have got away with such poor dramaturgy today; though, paradoxically, the weak construction of the story is what allows him to bring Holmes back.) The whole thing is insane—but less insane, I suppose, than, say, circumcision or transubstantiation. Holmes seems vaguely delicate and weary. Moriarty, though, is immaculate and evil and intent. Two unrealistic dummies plunge into the falls and then stop, hanging on ropes, the opposite of lifelike, and yet somehow the opposite of deathlike, too.

* * *

What is this really about? Perhaps the single most revealing fact I later discover is that Sherlock Holmes is the most often depicted fictional character on screen of all time. With over 250 different instances, Holmes surpasses his nearest rival, Hamlet, by some distance. His first outing is thought to be a 30-second silent movie, Sherlock Holmes Baffled, which appeared in the US in 1900. Hundreds of actors have since played the role. And, of course, his appeal is as direct and as fulsome and as lucrative today as ever it was. Indeed, we are now in the midst of a Sherlockian renaissance (not that he ever went away): the Guy Ritchie movies; the curiously apposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC adaptation; Elementary, a new series from the US; and the new “estate sanctioned” book.

The more you consider the phenomenon, the more profoundly it strikes you. Certainly, you cannot come on a trip such as this and not be affected by the sheer scale of Conan Doyle’s achievement as a writer. Few, if any, made-up characters have entered the popular mind to such an extent. There’s no reliable way of testing it, but my guess is that he is the most widely known fictional creation on the planet—up there with Superman, Batman, Bond and the gang. Surely, there can be very few people left on Earth who do not know something of the detective. On these grounds alone, this is a fiction-writing achievement that is impossible not to admire, respect and analyse.

The view that I come to is this: what makes Sherlock Holmes uniquely appealing is precisely that (like those others) he is a superhero, but—and here’s the rub—that he is not superhuman. Unlike Superman, Holmes’s powers of “detection” are not beyond those of any human being who can think and observe and draw inference. A large part of the thrill of reading the stories is that when Watson reveals Holmes’s superpowers, they turn out to not be superpowers at all. If only we had studied his methods. From a psychological point of view, therefore, Sherlock is the perfect embodiment of two of our deepest and most contradictory needs: the need for a transcendent and universally redemptive hero, and the need for the truth to be available to everyone.

My second thought is a development of the well-rehearsed and more general reasons for the popularity of crime as a genre. Like all superheroes and detectives, Holmes plays directly to our abiding human anxieties—reassuring us, righting wrongs. He overcomes violence. He restores order. He makes the foreign familiar. He confronts our primal fears—that demon-hound baying out there in the darkness—and he tames them. But I’d go a little further and say that he, in particular, is an extra-special creation because he was conceived on the very cusp of modernity: unlike his legion impersonators, Holmes was the first to represent the new age of science and science’s ability to explain the inexplicable.

I would add to these two ideas a third, perhaps more writerly, observation: that—instinctively or otherwise—Conan Doyle bequeathed us a character that appeals so powerfully because he is both a universal everyman and a strikingly particular individual.

Consider: Holmes is not of the ruling class, the lower class or the middle class. He is an insider, but also an outsider. We know nothing of his education, next to nothing of his childhood, very little of his views or experiences or feelings concerning the dozen or so ordinarily staple subjects by which a writer creates character. Holmes isn’t of any profession save the one that he has founded. He is not an employee of business, or of the state, and frequently disdains the laws and precepts of both. He forms no attachments but he interacts with the same equanimity whether he is with urchins or kings. Though he concerns himself with crime, he does not concern himself with the causes of crime. (In this sense, he is both radical and conservative.) Sure, he will get you your man every time—and in fine style—but he’s never going to suggest a change to sentencing laws, the reform of the prison system, or a new model for society. Though supremely egotistical, Conan Doyle is careful to make clear that Holmes’s ego serves only his work. (Holmes even quotes Flaubert: “L’homme c’est rienl’oeuvre c’est tout.” (“The man is nothing, the work everything.”) He is asexual, remote, aloof, analytical but enduringly lovable—the loyalty and regard of Watson is our witness to this and as important in the creation of the fiction as Holmes himself.

Conversely, think of the particulars. The hat, the cape, the phrase-making (“elementary,” “when you have eliminated the impossible…” “the game is afoot”), the pipe, the slipper, the cocaine, the violin, the code-breaking, the chemistry, the monographs on tobacco ash, the fog, 221b Baker Street (you have to love the ever-so-particular authorial touch of that “b”) and so on. Yes, these are the devices by which a writer might make his creations come alive in the mind of his readers. But what a clever, instantly and uniquely identifiable list it is.

Even the very name does both jobs: what could be more arresting, particular and immediately recognisable than “Sherlock?”; and what could be more universal, soothing and, well, “homey” than Holmes?

Incidentally, if some of the above appears a little Freudian, then it now strikes me that the influence is in entirely the opposite direction; that Freud is a little Sherlockian. The great psychoanalyst—with his cocaine, his consulting rooms, his “cases” of the “wolf man” and “rat man,” his belief that truth can be deduced from study and exercise of the mind, from observation... But all that’s for another essay.

A fourth thought before we leave the Reichenbach falls. I suspect that Holmes’s enduring popularity is also something to do with London—or, rather, nostalgia for a vanished London. His world lives in the global imagination as the favourite fantasy of our capital city: the cobbles, the gaslights, the fog and horse-drawn cabs. Interestingly (as Moriarty and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, later point out to me) this nostalgia was not born much later (in the 1960s, say, as I had imagined) but at the very time that Conan Doyle was writing. Because, between at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, London changed dramatically—roads were smoothed, motorisation began, horses were on their way out and electricity was widely replacing gas. Holmes’s London was vanishing even as Conan Doyle wrote.

* * *

It’s time to say goodbye. I follow the pilgrims back down the funicular where we are to prepare for a full outdoor funeral service for Holmes—dead but not dead—accompanied by the band and the chubby boy with a beard—though not really. We are to be led by some kind of Victorian reverend, except not. In fact, the parson is Moriarty dressed in a new costume; though, of course, he’s not really Moriarty, or a parson, or Victorian.

Meanwhile, I solve the Mystery of the Menacing Mopeds not by a thrilling series of deductions, but by asking the train operator straight out. It turns out that the 770 moped riders are in Meiringen at the same time as the pilgrims to take part—oh, the incongruity—in a 132km mountain pass race sponsored by Red Bull, the energy drink. The winner will be the rider with the time closest to the average of all the participants—hence their unwillingness either to speed up or slow down.

I focus my attention on the funeral service. Peter Steiler is once again loudly insisting upon his intelligence. Effie Munroe and Percy “Tadpole” Phelps are coming my way. The band strikes up some new lament.

What is going on in Meiringen, I now realise, is that by dressing up and performing strange rituals on mountainsides, some human beings are expressing their need for an everyman redeemer, who is nonetheless convincingly particular, while other human beings are enjoying an absurdly pointless race in “support” of a “brand” whose “values” cannot in any real sense be said to exist except in the minds of its marketing managers. What is going on in Meiringen is what is always going on: in variously mad ways, we’re busy being human.

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