His Last Bow (short story)
|"His Last Bow"|
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||His Last Bow|
"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 Reminiscences of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The narration is in the third person, instead of the first person narration usually provided by the character of Dr. Watson, and it is a spy story, rather than a detective 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, the German agent Von Bork 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's associate, Baron von Herling, is impressed by his acquisition of vital British military secrets, and tells Von Bork that he will be received in Berlin as a hero. Von Bork says that he is waiting for one last transaction with his Irish-American informant, Altamont, who will arrive shortly with a rich treasure: naval signals.
Von Herling leaves just before Altamont arrives. Von Bork's housekeeper has turned her light off and retired. Altamont shows Von Bork a package. Altamont disparages Von Bork's safe, but Von Bork proudly says that its construction and the double combination lock make it impenetrable. He tells Altamont that the combination is "August 1914". Altamont, mentioning cases in which several German informants have ended up in prison, is distrustful of Von Bork and refuses to deliver the naval codes until he receives payment. Von Bork refuses to pay until he has examined Altamont's intelligence data.
Altamont hands him the package. Von Bork finds that it is a book titled Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, hardly what he expected. Even less expected is the chloroform-soaked rag that is held in his face by Altamont a moment later. Altamont is actually Sherlock Holmes in disguise, and the chauffeur who brought him is Dr. Watson. Now much older than in their heyday, they have nonetheless caught several spies (Holmes is actually responsible for the imprisoned agents of whom "Altamont" spoke), and 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 identified the security leak through which British secrets were reaching the Germans, and then set out to apprehend the receiving agents themselves. The housekeeper was one of Holmes' agents: the light that she switched off was the signal to Holmes and Watson that the coast was clear.
Holmes and Watson take Von Bork and the evidence to Scotland Yard.
Afterward, Holmes retires from 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. The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, set before the story, was published four years later.
In reference to the impending War, Holmes says, "There's an east wind coming, Watson." Watson mistakes his meaning and says, "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."
This patriotic 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 during World War II, where it is misattributed to Winston Churchill.
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. 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.
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More than one critic has questioned the merits of "His Last Bow" as a spy story. 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?" Edwards' fellow critic Steve Clarkson asked, "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?" 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 exposing himself as a British agent, and with his specifically telling the German which information was false ("Your admiral may find the new guns rather larger than he expects, and the cruisers perhaps a trifle faster"). Judged by the standards of later spy literature, Holmes' act would seem an inexplicable 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 as a nearby neutral country in that war).
Twenty years later, the real-life World War II British spymaster John Cecil Masterman built an extensive network of double agents known as the Double Cross System, successfully providing Germany with of false information throughout the war. As he noted in his memoirs, 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 prison, and in "His Last Bow" this convention was used in a spy story where it would have been better to have the villain go free, unaware that he and his country were being deceived. Doyle's patriotic and propagandist 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 agent, after which Holmes and Watson would have themselves a good laugh at his stupidity.
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