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Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem

Authored by Hannes Binder, translated by David Henry Wilson
Illustrated by Hannes Binder
Published by NorthSouth Books

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The Swiss artist Hannes Binder has produced a striking illustrated retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Final Problem in which Sherlock Holmes finally meets his end at the hands of Professor Moriarty (or so we are led to believe).

The book follows the same structure as Conan Doyle’s story; the language is condensed and simplified but still gives us a clear sense of Holmes’ battle with his gifted rival. David Henry Wilson’s translation will be accessible to most older primary readers, whilst retaining some of Conan Doyle’s most evocative descriptions: Moriarty ‘sits like a spider at the center of a giant web of intrigue‘ while the Reichenbach Falls, the scene of Holmes and Moriarty’s confrontation, are described as ‘hurtling down a chasm lined with black rocks, their waters thundering into the bottomless depths of a seething cauldron’.

However, it is Binder’s illustrations that bring this retelling to life. Using dark blue ink and a scratchboard technique similar to woodcut and linocut printing, Binder is able to create a stunning array of contours and textures. He combines intricate representations of the murky streets of Victorian London and the cascading waterfalls of the Swiss mountains with more abstract depictions of Holmes and Moriarty’s titanic clash. As Holmes admires Moriarty’s colossal intellect, we see a giant brain sitting on top of a London skyline. On the next page, Moriarty’s disembodied face floats above an illustration of Holmes’s rooms. And as Watson tries to keep Moriarty off his trail on his way to Victoria Station, Binder’s illustration combines a London Street scene meshed with a grid-like street map and a huge watchful eye looming above.

The illustrations are further enhanced by the design of the book. Apart from the title on the front cover, the whole book is produced in the same dark blue colour, establishing a sombre tone. As Watson reaches the top of the Reichenbach Falls and surveys the depths into which he believes his friend has plunged, Binder switches to minimal white text on dark blue verso pages opposite full-bleed drawings of the swirling vortex below to mirror the vertiginous feelings experienced by Watson in this moment.

This is the only Sherlock Holmes story Binder has illustrated, and in some ways, it might seem an odd choice: it is more of an adventure than a mystery with less of Holmes’s trademark deductive skill on show and a fair bit of exposition needed. But I can see the appeal for Binder – his style is well suited to the different settings and the subdued mood of this story. And it is a good story to pique children’s curiosity about Sherlock Holmes – a note at the end reveals that Conan Doyle resurrected his hero ten years later, and this book might serve as a springboard to explore Holmes’s adventures both before and after this story.