“It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August – the most terrible August in the history of the world.”
His Last Bow, for a work of propaganda, is unusually moving. In part this is a function of Holmes’s Arthurian role here – he returns in his country’s hour of need, and once again provides to it sterling service. A stronger pull of the story, though, is in the tenderness of Holmes and Watson’s friendship – they are old men now, though they flatter each other that they look no different – and Holmes, with a knowing grimness, warns that their conversation at the end of the story might be “the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” Holmes has been in the world of espionage for two years as this story begins, but he cannot resist calling upon Watson to be there at the climax – and, of course, Watson drops everything and answers. Complete with references to past adventures and glories, the story is an elegy for the Baker Street years – and perhaps, too, the England which played host to them.
Indeed, despite Conan Doyle’s clearly hawkish pose in this story (he has the German characters scoff at the “self-absorption and general air of comfortable somnolence” of the complacent English, whilst only Holmes vows that the patient Englishman should not be tried too far), there is a regretful foreboding to the tale. “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,” Holmes famously intones, and the gloating war-mongery of the Germans gives us no hope that the coming war will not be harsh, will not change the face of England and Europe forever. This is the final story – chronologically speaking – in the Holmes and Watson sequence, and this is how it must be. The world will have no place for them after August, 1914 – the uncomplicated intelligencer of The Naval Treaty will be replaced by the more ambivalent spooks of Graham Greene or John le Carré.
His Last Bow was written in 1917, three years into what had quickly become a shockingly brutal conflict. Holmes’s crowing that, thanks to the false information he has been feeding the Germans, they will find British guns larger and British cruisers faster than they expected rings hollow in this context. The gentlemanly ‘sport’ of international diplomacy in which Holmes has for so long engaged seems unsuited to the context of 1917. As wonderful an idea as it was to enlist Holmes into the war effort – Conan Doyle was an out-spoken supporter of General Haig – the altered world of 1917 bears little relation to Holmes’s urbane air of triumph. The Great War is beyond even his intellect to predict and control.
Perhaps these problems, too, are the cause of the story’s failure as a spy thriller: why does Holmes reveal his identity instead of continuing to undermine the German war effort? Why is Von Bork released to the German ambassador? And is it a credible plan of espionage merely to adopt a funny name, arrive in Chicago, and proceed to be a bit crooked? (In a round-about infiltration, Holmes “gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen, and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork.”) Holmes and Conan Doyle belong to an older world of detectives and criminals, gentlemen and drawing rooms. His Last Bow is the final Holmes story in a conceptual as well as literal sense – and that, ultimately, is its most moving aspect of all.