Following The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle continued writing Holmes short stories on into WW I (and after, but we’ll get to that in a later post), as well as the novel The Valley of Fear (ditto). Then came the collection HIS LAST BOW, named for a short story that came out in 1917, detailing Holmes’ heroic fight against the German menace (illustration by Arthur Gilbert, taken from the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)
The story is set right before the war began. It opens on Von Bork, a German spy who by posing as a good sporting chap, always ready to keep up with the English in their games and fun, has wormed his way inside society and used that position to worm out information about England’s defenses and military plans. His main weapon has been Altamont, an Irish renegade and hoodlum, who’s quite happy to help Germany wreak havoc upon the English. Von Bork and his superior are very smug about how stupid and clueless the English are about what’s going to befall them. Von Bork actually tells Altamont that the August 1914 start of the war was planned for years in advance (nope).
Ah, those foolish Huns, underestimating British pluck and ingenuity! In reality Altamont is Sherlock Holmes on a deep-cover mission (four years!) to worm his way into Von Bork’s confidence. All the secret plans and valuable information he provided is bogus — the Germans are going to get a big shock when they take on Britain (by 1917 it was obvious Germany hadn’t been that clueless, but apparently nobody objected). At the end Holmes and Watson optimistically hope for a better world to arise from the war that’s coming (sigh).
The other stories are competent, but not particularly remarkable. The best is The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot in which Holmes and Watson investigate an almost supernatural death in the countryside. The Bruce-Parkington Plans is noteworthy for establishing that Mycroft, rather than a mere paper-pusher in the government, uses his deductive genius to forecast the outcome of multiple inter-related events and trends (“At times he is the British government.”)
Holmes shows the same enthusiasm for lawbreaking to get the job done that he did in Return. And like Return, this one treats the cops much better than the early stories did. Like the previous volume’s Stanley Hopkins, we have the capable Inspector Baynes in one story and even Gregson comes off more competent. Perhaps now that Holmes was established, Doyle didn’t feel the need to prove it by showing the Scotland Yarders as idiots.
In the introduction Doyle reveals that Holmes has indeed returned to retirement after the events of His Last Bow, devoting himself to beekeeping in Sussex and writing a masterwork on the subject. This, of course, is one of those details (like the two years after his supposed death) that later writers love to elaborate on: isn’t it more likely he was working for British intelligence say? And multiple later mystery writers have assumed that even in retirement, Holmes is still Holmes. A Taste of Honey by H.F. Heard has a beekeeper named “Mr. Mycroft” involved in a mystery. Laurie R. King has written a whole series of mysteries built around Holmes and his protege and later lover Mary Russell (hmm, I may have to look into those now). There’s even a theory Holmes developed an immortality serum based on royal jelly.
The two remaining volumes of Holmes’ adventures took place before his original 1902 retirement. I’ll get to them soon.