His Last Bow (short story)
|"His Last Bow"|
1917 illustration by Alfred Gilbert
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||His Last Bow|
|Publication date||September 1917|
"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 as "His Last Bow. The War Service of Sherlock Holmes", and, amongst six other stories, was collected in an anthology titled His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of 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 past 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. Afterwards, Holmes retires from detective work. He spends his days beekeeping in the countryside and writing his definitive work on investigation. In reference to the impending War, Holmes says, "There's an east wind coming, Watson." Watson misinterprets the meaning of the words and says, "I think not, Holmes. It is very warm", to which Holmes replies:
"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 story is the last chronological instalment of the series. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, set before the story, was published later.
Holmes' 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), loosely based on "His Last Bow," though set during World War II.
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. Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash is set during Holmes's undercover search for Von Bork; it tells how he divides his time between his counter-espionage task and a search for Sir Denis Nayland Smith, believed to have been kidnapped by Fu Manchu; thus, Van Ash combines the worlds created by Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer.
The story is continued in Robert Ryan's 2015 novel A Study in Murder, the third in his "Dr Watson" detective series, in which Von Bork torments Dr Watson, now a prisoner of war in Germany, and arranges for him to be exchanged for Sherlock Holmes so that he can exact his revenge.
"His Last Bow" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1994 by Bert Coules as part of his complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring Norman Rodway as Stamford, Michael Cochrane as Captain Kell, and Preston Lockwood as H. H. Asquith.
- Doyle. Sherlock Holmes. Bantam Classics.
- Bert Coules. "His Last Bow". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.