Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bow Out

Despite what the title suggests, "His Last Bow" is not the final Sherlock Holmes story. But it many ways, the story suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle was once again contemplating whether to stop writing about the character.

With World War I approaching, a German agent is making plans to flee England with intelligence he's been gathering for years. He plans just one more meeting with his longtime informant Altamont. But "Altamont" is soon revealed to be Sherlock Holmes, having emerged from retirement to serve his country one more time.

So much about this story positions it as an epilogue to wrap up the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It is set decades after the bulk of the Holmes stories, talking about how they've gone on to other lives. It is told not from Watson's point of view, but from a conventional third-person perspective. Indeed, Watson and Holmes don't even appear until the final pages; the bulk of the story follows German spy Von Bork. And even though Doyle wrote one more collection of Holmes stories, this remained the last one in terms of when it was set chronologically.

The choice in setting is not surprising either. "His Last Bow" was published in the midst of World War I, and that surely loomed large in Doyle's mind. He had on one or two other occasions written a Holmes story that came off like a political spy thriller, and the temptation to do so again with the backdrop of that then-unprecedented conflict must have been tremendous.

Yet it really isn't the best "spy thriller," because the espionage makes no sense. After feeding this German agent false information for years, Sherlock Holmes doesn't allow him to escape with it to his home country; instead, he reveals himself and all his deceptions. And he doesn't even capture the agent. In this, again the thought that this might have been the last Holmes adventure looms large -- the agenda here isn't to tell a credible spy tale, it's to have Holmes show off one last time just how clever he is.

But unfortunately, it's not a very great note to end on. The lack of logic and the relative absence of Holmes in the story makes it one of Arthur Conan Doyle's weaker entries. I give it a D+.

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