His Last Bow (story)
|"His Last Bow (story)"|
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||His Last Bow|
|Client(s)||The British Government|
|Set in||August 1914|
"His Last Bow", published in September 1917, is one of 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in Strand Magazine, and, amongst six other stories, was collected in an anthology titled His Last Bow, also called Reminiscensces of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The narration is third-person, not, as usual, by Dr. Watson, and it is a spy story, rather than a murder mystery. Due to its portrayal of British and German spies, its publication during the First World War and its patriotic themes, the story has been interpreted as a propaganda tool intended to boost morale for British readers.
On the eve of the First World War, Von Bork, a German agent, is getting ready to leave England with his vast collection of intelligence, gathered over a four-year period. His wife and household have already left Harwich for Flushing in the Netherlands, leaving only him and his elderly housekeeper. Von Bork and his diplomat friend Baron von Herling disparage their British hosts, having judged them rather negatively. Von Herling is impressed at his friend's collection of vital British military secrets, and tells Von Bork that he will be received in Berlin as a hero. Von Bork indicates that he is waiting for one last transaction with his Irish-American informant Altamont, who will arrive shortly. The treasure will prove rich, Von Bork thinks: naval signals.
Von Herling leaves and Von Bork gets to work packing the contents of his safe. He then hears another car arriving. It is Altamont. By this time, the old housekeeper has turned her light off and retired. Von Bork greets Altamont, and Altamont shows him the package that he has brought.
Altamont proceeds to disparage Von Bork's safe, but Von Bork proudly says that nothing can cut through the metal, and that it has a double combination lock. He even tells Altamont the combination: “August 1914”. Altamont then insinuates that German agents get rid of their informants when they are finished with them, naming several who have ended up in prison. Von Bork is left to make excuses for these events. Altamont's mistrust of Von Bork is evident in his refusal to hand over the package before he gets his cheque. Von Bork, for his part, claims the right to examine the document before handing Altamont the cheque which he has written.
Altamont hands him the package, and upon opening it, it turns out to be a book called Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, hardly what he expected. Even less expected is the chloroform-soaked rag that was held in his face by Altamont a moment later. Altamont, it turns out, is none other than Sherlock Holmes, and the chauffeur who brought him is, of course, Dr. Watson. Now much older than in their heyday, they have nonetheless not only caught several spies (Holmes is actually responsible for the imprisoned agents, of course) in their return from retirement, but fed the Germans some thoroughly untrustworthy intelligence. Holmes has been on this case for two years, and it has taken him to Chicago, Buffalo, and Ireland, where he learnt to play the part of a bitter Irish-American, even gaining the credentials of a member of a secret society. He then identified the security leak through which British secrets were reaching the Germans.
The housekeeper was part of the plot, too. The light that she switched off was the signal to Holmes and Watson that the coast was clear.
After the story has concluded, it is revealed that Holmes has retired from active detective work. He spends his days beekeeping in the countryside and writing his definitive work on investigation.
The story is the last chronological installment of the series, though yet another collection (The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes), set before the story, was published four years later. In reference to the impending World War I, Holmes concludes,
- "There's an east wind coming, Watson."
- "I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."
- "Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
The patriotic sentiment of the above passage has been widely quoted, and was later used in the final scene of the Basil Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), set in World War II.
- Sherlock Holmes' undercover name, Altamont, is also the middle name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's father, Charles Altamont Doyle.
- The events leading up to and beyond this story were described in Sherlock Holmes and the Railway Maniac (1994, ISBN 978-0-7490-0546-7), by Barrie Roberts. Holmes, in retirement, is asked by some railway companies to investigate two terrible derailments. It transpires the crashes and later bombings were assassination attempts by a bomber acting under instructions from Von Bork. It takes Holmes years to get close to Von Bork, to capture him, then interrogate him to get closer to the bomber.
- The end of Nicholas Meyer's 1993 novel The Canary Trainer ties into "His Last Bow", with Edward Grey and H. H. Asquith approaching Holmes to request he come out of retirement to investigate a man named Von Bork.
- More than one critic questioned "His Last Bow's" merits as a spy story, other Sherlock Homes spy stories include earlier stories such as "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" as well as "The Adventure of the Second Stain".
- Ralph Edwards, a veteran Sherlockian critic, asked : "Why, on the eve of war, did Holmes reveal to von Bork that his military information was faulty?" In the same vein, Edwards' fellow critic Steve Clarkson followed with "Why was Von Bork not arrested for espionage? Why was he allowed to return to Germany, when it was obvious that he would alert his superiors that the information he had garnered was worthless?".
- To this Rosemary Michaud added: "Even if Von Bork stayed a prisoner, wouldn't his capture itself have aroused suspicion that the information which passed through him was untrustworthy? Would there have been some other way for Holmes to get at Von Bork's papers without tipping off the Germans that the game was up?"
- These critics seem to take issue both with Holmes' act of exposing himself as a British agent, and with his specific telling the German precisely which information that he had given was false and in what way ("Your admiral may find the new guns rather larger than he expects, and the cruisers perhaps a trifle faster").
- Indeed, judged by the standards of later spy literature, Holmes' act would seem an inexplicable gross blunder: having spent years of time and effort to work himself into the position of a double agent whose information is completely trusted by the Germans, Holmes for no apparent reason blows his own cover. He could have easily kept the guise of the Irish Altamont which served him so well, and arranged with Von Bork some channel through which he could go on feeding false information throughout the coming war (for example, via the Netherlands which is mentioned briefly as a conveniently near neutral country in that war).
- Some twenty years later, the real-life World War II British spymaster John Cecil Masterman would painstakingly build an extensive network of double agents known as the Double Cross System, and with great success provide Germany with a flood of false information throughout the war. As he repeatedly notes in his memoirs, extreme pains were taken to keep up the masquerade and avoid the smallest risk of a double agent being accidentally unmasked.
- Conan Doyle, however, was working without the intimate knowledge of the business of espionage which later writers would have, either from such published memoirs or from the extensive personal spying experience of such writers as Ian Fleming and John le Carré. The whole genre of spy stories was just beginning, and Doyle was merely straying into it from time to time from his expert handling of the detective story.
- In a detective story, the reader expects the villain to be in the end hauled off to a police cell – and in "His Last Bow" this convention was carried on into a spy story where in fact it would have been better to have the villain walk off jauntily, unaware that he and his country were being duped.
- In fact, Doyle's patriotic and propagandistic purposes could have been easily combined with letting Holmes display more of what le Carré would decades later call a spy's "tradecraft". Von Bork could have been allowed to depart unhindered, securely confident in his Irish star agent, after which Holmes and Watson would have themselves a good laugh at his stupidity – with the reader joining the fun and feeling assured that at present, in 1917, Holmes is still working hard at deceiving the enemy.
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