Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. Art by Sidney Paget (1893)
“I owe you many apologies, dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true.”
- Sherlock Holmes, “The Empty House”
Any consulting detective as successful as Sherlock Holmes is sure to rack up an impressive list of powerful enemies, and sometimes—as Holmes decided was the case in “The Final Problem”—the best way to escape their vengeance is to fake one’s own death. This is by no means an option for the faint of heart. Not only is it a cruel thing to inflict upon those who care for you, but it requires an exceeding amount of bother to execute the deed properly. Pray that you never have to embark upon the steps outlined here!
1. Design a persuasive death scene. The best kind—and your only option, really—is a death that leaves no recognizable body behind. Explosions or fires are good choices, provided you plant a skeleton in the wreckage that may plausibly be identified as your own. Water-related tragedies in which the corpse is unrecoverable are also ideal, as was Holmes's choice in “The Final Problem”—he made it appear as though he’d tumbled over the lofty Reichenback Falls, the treacherous bottom of which authorities didn’t even bother to search for his remains. Holmes’s footprints led up to the precipice and disappeared, leading all concerned to conclude he had fallen to his death—when in fact he merely climbed over a nearby ledge, where he hid until the scene was deserted and he could make a stealthy escape.
2. Skip town. As long as you remain near your old familiar haunts or anyone who might recognize you, you’re in danger. Get as far as possible from your home and the scene of your “death,” as quickly as you can. When Holmes miraculously returns to London in “The Empty House,” he tells Watson about the exotic places he’d lived in the intervening three years: Tibet, Persia, Mecca, and Egypt, among other distant locales. Those were extreme choices, to be sure, but extraordinarily safe ones—the chances of his meeting someone there whom he had known prior to his “death” were low indeed.
3. Assume a new identity. Though your body lives on, your former identity must die. Grow facial hair, change your walk, and develop a new accent to help bury obvious traces of your former self. While traveling far and wide, Holmes went undercover as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson, whose exploits and discoveries were fantastic enough to make international headlines. Yet he was never recognized as Holmes himself, so convincing was this disguise.
4. Arrange access to a supply of money. Travel is expensive, and you’ll no longer have access to bank accounts or lines of credit established under your real name. You can always bring cash with you or deposit money into an anonymous offshore account, but keep in mind that making any sudden, last-minute transfers or withdrawals into that account before your death is extremely suspect behavior. If you’re able to plan your death significantly in advance, make gradual, monthly transfers over a period of several years to avoid suspicion. Less advisable was Holmes’s technique: He revealed himself to his brother Mycroft, who became Holmes’s sole confidant and source of funds. Had Mycroft been compromised in some way, Holmes’s secret would’ve been revealed, and his life put into considerable danger. Which brings us to the next point:
5. Reveal yourself to no one. The wrenching heartache endured by your loved ones is your enemies’ most convincing proof you’re really dead. Should their grief-stricken ululations seem forced or overly theatrical, someone is sure to smell a rat. This profound separation from friends and relations will undoubtedly be the most trying aspect of your ordeal, as even cold and logical Holmes admits---“Several times during the past three years I have taken up my pen to write to you,” he apologizes to Watson—but such cruel alienation is necessary. Holmes explains why: ”I feared your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret.”
6. Wait until your enemies are at their weakest to return. With time, the fires of your enemies’ vengeance will cool, and their guard will fall. They may themselves die or be jailed (for such are dangers of the criminal life) and when they are at their most defenseless, as Holmes judged his to be shortly before his dramatic resurrection, it’s time to return home.
7. Minimize the shock to your friends and family. When Holmes finally revealed himself to Watson, he does it in such a shocking way—which Holmes himself later confesses was “unnecessarily dramatic”—that poor Watson, a veteran of war and a man of sound constitution, faints on the spot. Imagine the effect such an appearance would have on the elderly or the anxious, and do your all to introduce yourself to them gradually. Save surprising flourishes for your enemies!
The article above is excerpted from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective by Ransom Riggs.
There are many guides and handbooks written over the years, but I dare say that this is one of the most fun (and most useful, if you want to become a world-famous detective).
The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective, published by Quirk Books and written by our pal Ransom Riggs - a lifelong Holmes aficionado and regular contributor to mental_floss magazine and blog - features the skills that would-be sleuths should know.
Need to decode ciphers and analyze fingerprints? Check. Disguise yourself and outwit a criminal mastermind? No problem. For avid Holmes fans, history buffs, and armchair sleuths of all sorts, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook will satisfy "Baker Street Irregulars" of all ages.