Arthur Conan Doyle: His Last Bow

Annotated Sherlock HolmesHis Last Bow
Arthur Conan Doyle
First published in the UK September 1917, The Strand Magazine
This version included in Leslie S. Klinger’s The Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2004
ISBN: 9780393059168
15 pages

The Irish-American had entered the study and stretched his long limbs from the armchair. He was a tall, gaunt man of sixty, with clear-cut features and a small goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance to the caricatures of Uncle Sam.

‘His Last Bow’ is part of my mission to quickly read the Sherlock Holmes stories which inspired the titles of the next series of Sherlock. The final episode of the series will be called ‘His Last Vow’.

When ‘His Last Bow’ was published in 1917, Britain was three years into the Great War. Arthur Conan Doyle was perhaps inspired to write the story by an incident related in a footnote to my annotated edition. On a visit to the Western front in 1916, he was questioned by a French General:

‘Sherlock Holmes, est ce qu’il est un soldat dans l’armée anglaise?’ The whole table waited in an awful hush. ‘Mais, mon général,’ I stammered, ‘il est trop vieux pour service.’

Like series opener ‘The Adventure of the Empty House‘, ‘His Last Bow’ features a Holmes-Watson reunion, this time after an interlude of 11 years. (Is this why Martin Freeman’s Watson appears to be sporting a grey moustache in some of the images released from Sherlock?) Their previous recorded meeting was in 1903; it is now 1914.

Until he realised war was coming, Holmes had been retired and pursuing his hobby of beekeeping:

‘Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!’ He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. ‘Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.’

But more recently Holmes has been neglecting his bees to assume the identity of a goatee-bearded Irish-American enemy agent named Altamont. His object: to infiltrate and then bring down the networks of the German superspy Von Bork.

A remarkable man this Von Bork–a man who could hardly be matched among all the devoted agents of the Kaiser. It was his talents which had first recommended him for the English mission, the most important mission of all, but since he had taken it over those talents had become more and more manifest to the half-dozen people in the world who were really in touch with the truth.

Is he any match for Holmes in his final recorded adventure? You’ll have to guess.

The story ends with a message of hope for a Britain tired of war (although it sounds more like one of those portentous hints in Doctor Who):

‘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.’


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About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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3 Responses to Arthur Conan Doyle: His Last Bow

  1. Nice review, Rich. I’ve always found that last collection of stories fascinating in that Conan Doyle had originally never intended to write them. An example of really sensing what the market wanted and responding to it – with quality writing.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Thanks Margot.

      I’m just reading The Sign of Four with an intro by Graham Greene, who points out that Doyle couldn’t simply escape from Holmes by marrying off Watson. It just got harder and harder for him. I wonder if the same will be true for the BBC…

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  2. Oh dear, it would be nice to think that promise came true, but not really. I don’t think I’ve ever read this story, but maybe I’ll wait till after the TV show…

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