MEIRINGEN, Switzerland - A life-size bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes - capped, caped, and smoking his calabash pipe - sits in the town square. A replica of his London sitting room beckons a few feet away. And a cutout of the fictional British detective stands at the foot of nearby Reichenbach Falls.
Why is the English private eye celebrated at this hamlet in the Swiss Alps? Solving the mystery is elementary, my dear reader: This is where Sherlock Holmes was killed.
I recently ventured to the scene of the crime - the setting for "The Final Problem," the short story that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended to be Holmes' final adventure. In the story, the detective's sidekick, Dr. Watson, noted: "It was on the 3d of May that we reached the little village of Meiringen, where we put up at the Englischer Hof, then kept by Peter Steiler. . . ."
Today, there's a plaque at the entrance to the "hotel called by . . . Doyle Englischer Hof," where "Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson spent the night of 3rd/4th May, 1891."
In reality, Doyle slept here, in the five-story, 75-room, art nouveau-style Parkhotel du Sauvage, which dates to 1880. It's believed that Doyle stayed in this town in the Alps between Interlaken and Lucerne in 1893, when he reportedly concocted the final chapter for literature's smartest crime-solver.
From the hotel, I can see the place where Doyle envisioned Holmes meeting his fate. In "The Final Problem," hotelier Steiler advises Holmes and Watson "on no account to pass the falls of Reichenbach, which are about half-way up the hill, without making a small detour to see them."
These days, there are two ways up to Reichenbach Falls, including what Doyle described as a three-foot-wide "curving path, which winds over the shoulder of the hill and leads to it." Watson hastily climbed it in two hours, but, hot on their trail, I reach the fall's vantage point in 10 minutes aboard the Reichenbach-Bahn, a covered, open-air, wooden funicular built in 1899.
On a boulder near the funicular station is a 1957 plaque - "Erected by the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London" - bearing the profile of the pipe-smoking detective. The red railway car chugs 2,342 feet up the steep mountainside, to viewing terraces revealing the majestic Hasli Valley and a 393-foot-high Wagnerian waterfall.
As Doyle wrote:
"It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamor. [Holmes and Watson] stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss."
Steiler was right - the falls are a dramatic spot for sightseeing. But, for the world's greatest detective, they also proved to be deadly.
Visible through the mist, across from the rescue hut, a white star marks the spot on the mountain where, according to a grief-stricken Watson, Holmes' nefarious pursuer, Professor Moriarty, finally caught up with him. There, "a personal contest between the two men ended . . . locked in each other's arms. Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless, and there, deep down in that dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law. . . ."
Villagers have capitalized on the detective's dramatic demise. At the funicular ticket booth, I buy a T-shirt bearing Holmes' familiar profile in a deerstalker hat, smoking a calabash pipe with meerschaum bowl. At the falls overlook, the rescue hut has been turned into a Sherlock shrine, displaying Holmes-related photos, newspaper clippings and a TV playing a reenactment of the struggle between Holmes and Moriarty.
On the terrace stands a Swiss cheesy cutout of Holmes, painted pipe in hand, clad in his deerstalker and Inverness cape, minus the face: Insert yours for a souvenir photo, with the falls plunging behind you.
The village below also features Sherlockiana sure to delight Doyle devotees. Near Parkhotel du Sauvage is the town square, called Conan Doyle Place, where the first statue of the detective was unveiled in 1988. John Doubleday's life-size bronze depicts a seated Holmes, smoking his pipe, lost in thought. The statue cleverly features 60 symbols referencing Doyle's four novels and 56 short stories starring Holmes.
Just behind the statue is the English Church, home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. The author's daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London cosponsored the museum, which opened in 1991 - 100 years after the fictional crime fighter made his fateful journey to the village. On display are Holmes' spyglass, pipe, and rare editions of the Strand Magazine containing the detective's adventures.
The highlight is the painstaking replica of the sitting room in the Victorian lodging house at 221B Baker Street in London, where Watson and Holmes lived (and England's Sherlock Holmes Museum is located). Details are carefully drawn from Doyle's sagas: 19th-century gas lamps, Watson's Afghan War memorabilia, period wallpaper, top hats, a microscope.
Unlike its London counterpart, though, this museum doesn't sell tacky Sherlockiana - no schlocky figurines, refrigerator magnets, mugs, or bumper stickers - although Doyle's books are available.
Nearby is Das Hotel Sherlock Holmes, a three-star hotel featuring a metallic silhouette of the investigator on an outside wall.
Ironically, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of Holmes' death at Reichenbach Falls was greatly exaggerated.
Doyle, who also wrote novels such as The Lost World dinosaur saga, tired of the Holmes character and decided to kill him. But there was mass outrage at the detective's death, so Doyle revived him in 1901 in The Hound of the Baskervilles, set before Holmes' visit here.
Later, Holmes was brought back to life in "The Adventure of the Empty House," with Watson learning that Holmes' purported death was a ruse to hide from Moriarty's associates.
Nevertheless, it's elementary that the trail of Sherlock Holmes' exploits leads to this bucolic hamlet in the Swiss Alps.
Delta and US Airways fly to Zurich, Switzerland, from Philadelphia International Airport, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,016.
Meiringen is 73 miles from Zurich. There are regular trains making the two-hour, 40-minute trip.
Sherlock Holmes Museum
Place to stay
Parkhotel du Sauvage