By Bob Evans
Meiringen, Switzerland (GenevaLunch.com) – High on a bleak crag above this small crossroads town in central Switzerland, a large white X marks a world-famous spot which draws tourists and their cameras from around the globe.
Travellers leap from the cable car as it slides to a halt after an 8-minute climb from the valley below, pointing lenses through a mist of spray at the site of a fight to-the-death in 1891 between two determined men. After gazing fearfully at the churning white abyss below and the roaring cascade plunging from above, visitors scramble up a steep path and round the towering grey rock on a further 20-minute hike to get a closer look at the bridge near where the fateful encounter took place.
Or at least—for this is the Reichenbach Falls—where British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said it did.
“Without Sherlock Holmes, we might just be known for our beautiful scenery,” says Nils Glatthard, a native of Meiringen where the great detective stayed before starting the climb (no cable car then) to face his arch-foe and master criminal Professor Moriarty on a narrow path overlooking the Falls.
Certainly Holmes, whom his creator sent tumbling to his death clutching Moriarty into the foaming cauldron beneath, is ubiquitous in this small and not-quite-picturesque crossroads town of some 5,000 people.
There is the inevitable Sherlock Holmes Hotel, up a quiet avenue under shady trees, a Sherlock nightclub adorned with a genuine-looking “221b Baker Street” address sign, and abundant posters with the detective’s, or Conan Doyle’s, image. The town bookshop is well-stocked with editions in several languages, including Japanese, of the 56 stories and four novels in which Holmes appeared with his constant companion, Dr Watson.
But on a recent visit, they had just run out of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the volume containing “The Adventure of the Final Problem” in which, writing in 1893, Conan Doyle killed the detective off, only to be forced by public pressure to resurrect him 10 years later.
“There is really quite a demand,” says a young assistant. “Even local people like to read these books in English.”
At the centre of Meiringen’s Sherlock cult is “Conan Doyle Square” near the railway station where Holmes and Watson alighted — as in real life did the author and his wife on a visit in early 1893 which clearly gave him the idea of how and where to rid himself of a hero of whom he had tired.
On the main street at the edge of the square, a life-size bronze figure of the detective in the familiar deerstalker hat and enveloping cloak, thought up by Conan Doyle’s illustrator Sidney Piaget, and smoking his equally familiar pipe sits on a flat rock in deep meditation.
Across the square stands a brick and wood-framed chapel with a golden spire, dubbed the “English Church” at the end of the 19th century and catering at the time for a community large enough to justify an almost permanent Anglican priest.
The basement of the chapel houses Meiringen’s Sherlock Holmes Museum, the focus for occasional pilgrimages in full period garb by members of the London-based Sherlock Holmes Society and by fan groups from other countries.
A portrait of Conan Doyle and a large reproduction of Piaget’s classic portrayal of Holmes and Moriarty in their death struggle greet visitors on the staircase down into a small gallery with cases full of mementoes, manuscripts and photographs and postcards of the time.
Behind is the living room, reconstituted from Conan Doyle’s own scant descriptions and Piaget’s illustrations, at 221b Baker Street where Holmes lived and where his cases often opened as his housekeeper Mrs Hudson ushered in a new client.
A Stradivarius violin, playing which was the detective’s favourite relaxation, lies on a chair.
How far, then, has the Holmes canon really penetrated local culture in Meiringen, some 100 kms south east of the Swiss capital Bern. Glatthard, who heads the tourism body for the Haslital region stretching from Lake Brienz to the west up to the Grimsel Pass east of the town, was ambivalent.
“We certainly didn’t come across him at school,” he says of Holmes. “At least, not until I had to turn out with some of my friends in scout uniforms for a visit by the Holmes Society.” His colleague Christine Flueck from the nearby lakeside village of Brienz says she had hardly heard of the great detective until she came to Meiringen as a tour guide. But a middle-aged lady in local costume who sells the tickets and takes the wheel of one of the Reichenbach cable cars expressed pride in the link to the sleuth.
“It gives me a real thrill when people from countries like Brazil and Russia come here talking about him,” she says.
However, it appears that the Swiss did not always appreciate the value of Sherlock Holmes, not only as a tourist attraction but also as a stout champion of law and justice.
An article from the London Times in 1910 on display in the museum tells how the Swiss Federal Railways had banned “all novels of the detective type” from its bookstalls, an example, the report from the newspaper’s correspondent in Geneva said, was followed by several Swiss towns.
Conan Doyle remonstrated with the Railway authorities, arguing that he could not be held responsible, according to the account, for “the bad literature and worse morals of the stories which have inundated the Continent.”
But it seems his plea was rejected. “The Swiss papers,” the correspondent reported, “sympathize with Sir Arthur and other foreign writers of repute who will suffer to a certain extent under the prohibition. But they point out that the evils of poisonous ‘literature’ has resulted in so many crimes of recent years among the Swiss youth that very drastic measures are imperative.”
No one, it would appear, suggested calling in Sherlock Holmes.