This article is about the Short Story. For the collection of short stories, see His Last Bow (short stories)
|"His Last Bow"|
The narrative opens as two German agents - von Bork and von Herling - stand talking outside an English country house. The two men discuss the positions of the United Kingdom and Germany relative to the impending First World War.
Von Bork talks about an Irish-American man called Altamont whom he employs as an informer against the British. Altamont is supposed to be bringing an important dossier to von Bork that evening. Once von Bork receives it he intends to leave England.
Von Herling departs and von Bork starts packing in preparation for his getaway. Altamont soon arrives in a chauffeur-driven car. He has a small wrapped parcel with him which he claims is the anticipated dossier of information.
Von Bork opens up the parcel and is amazed to find a small blue book entitled “Practical Handbook of Bee Culture”. Altamont then swiftly renders von Bork unconscious using chloroform.
Altamont is really Sherlock Holmes and his chauffeur is Dr Watson. Holmes gathers up von Bork’s papers so that the English government will be able to get an idea of how much information the Germans possess. Holmes tells Watson that he supplied many of the documents himself in the persona of Altamont and so the information they contained was inaccurate.
Holmes had retired to the South Downs and immersed himself in his new hobby of bee-keeping. The handbook which was in the parcel was Holmes’ own work. His secluded life had come to an end when the British government asked for his help. Holmes had gone to America and worked as a criminal in order to get the attention of von Bork and ultimately be trusted by him as an agent.
Holmes talks to Watson of the dangers of the impending war and his hope for a “cleaner, better, stronger land” after the storm has passed.
The von Bork case seems to have been Sherlock Holmes's last bow. Following the arrest, Holmes returned to his life of seclusion in Sussex to live out his life in peace and solitude, keeping bees and eventually publishing a manual on the subject. 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 details of his later life and death are not known but he lives on to this day through the records of his thrilling cases, and will always be remembered and regarded as the "World's Only Consulting Detective".
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."
"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 is one of only two stories of Sherlock Holmes narrated in Third Person POV, the other being "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone".
- 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 (1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon) and H. H. Asquith approaching Holmes to request he come out of retirement to investigate a man named Von Bork.
- 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".
- More than one critic questioned "His Last Bow's" merits 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?" . 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.
- 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.