Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous as the creator of the character of Sherlock Holmes, and the author of 56 Holmes stories and 4 Holmes novels. Though the adventures of Mr. Holmes and his friend, companion, and chronicler, Dr. Watson, Doyle achieved fame and a degree of material success he did not get from his medical practice or from his other literary work. After the success of the novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, and of Holmes’ adventures in 23 stories, Doyle decided to kill off his famous detective in a final and fatal battle with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Solution.”
Royal desire (Queen Victoria was a big fan) to have more Holmes adventures resulted in Doyle first producing adventures that took place prior to the Reichenbach Falls incident, but which had not yet been published. And then, with the story, “The Empty House,” Holmes made a triumphant return. Apparently the rumors of Holmes’ death were greatly exaggerated.
Given Holmes’ popularity (Doyle continued to write Holmes stories into the 20th century), it’s not surprising that when World War I broke out, (Doyle did his patriotic duty, organizing a group of volunteers to assist in the war effort) that a young British soldier might ask Doyle whether Mr. Holmes was doing anything for the war effort. That encounter with the soldier resulted ultimately in Doyle’s penning “His Last Bow,” a story published during the war, but which is set just prior to Britain’s entry into the war, with Holmes outwitting a German spy in the months and days before Britain’s entry into the conflict on 4 August 1914.
“His Last Bow” was meant to be the last of the Holmes stories, and is given the subtitle “An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes”. Doyle did pen and publish a subsequent collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, but all the stories in that collection “take place” a decade or more before “His Last Bow.” The story is unusual in that it is one of only a couple of Holmes stories not written in the first person; most of the Holmes’ stories, and all of the novels are written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ faithful companion, and a few stories are written from Holmes’ own perspective. This story, though, was written in the 3rd person, perhaps because Doyle wanted to present this story of espionage thwarted in such a way that Holmes’ entrance comes as something of a surprise, though the subtitle kind of serves as a spoiler.
Within the story, Holmes’s appearance, and that of Dr. Watson, does come as a surprise. Holmes had been disguised as one of the informants serving von Bork, the German spy, and his true identity is not revealed until he has disposed of von Bork. It does make one wonder if Doyle had originally intended this spy story to feature some other British agent, but changed it to a Holmes story after his encounter with the young soldier.
The story first appeared in The Strand magazine on September 22, 1917, and chronologically in terms of Holmes’ narrative life, it is Holmes’ last adventure. The adventures contained in the rest of this collection and in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, the final Holmes collection, all have dramatic dates well before WWI. According to the preface to the collection, “written” by John H. Watson, M.D., Holmes retired from detecting after this case, in favor of a quiet life keeping bees.
The story concludes with this most famous interchange between Holmes and his friend:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“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.”
It’s not clear what exactly Doyle envisioned by this “cleaner, better, stronger land” following the bitterness of WWI. In September 1917, the end of the war was not quite in sight. The reality, in any case, I’m sure, fell far short of his hopes.
In addition to “His Last Bow,” this collection contains “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans,” another espionage story involving stolen submarine plans, set in 1895. That story, which features Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, as well, is generally placed among the top ten Holmes’ stories.
On the audio front, there are good audio recordings of the collection available through hoopla, though sadly the best recording, done by Sir Derek Jacobi, is not currently available through any of local libraries.