September, 1917. England is at war, and with war comes propaganda. As with the likes of Superman, Captain America, and thousands of other heroes after him during World War II, Sherlock Holmes was enlisted to fight the Great War in order to boost morale for military and civilian alike. This was the cover of The Strand Magazine that featured “The Last Bow”:
The story in question takes place on the eve of the First World War, positioning Holmes squarely and irrevocably into the modern world. In short, it’s the turning point in the series and in the character himself. It’s also the last chronological installment of the series, with the stories in the final collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, all taking place before this point despite their postwar publications. And that means the turning point offers only untapped potential… at least canonically. More on that later, but first, let’s talk about the story itself.
Over the past four years, German agent Von Bork is readying to leave England with a substantial pile of intelligence. His wife and household have already departed to the Netherlands, leaving him with his elderly housekeeper. An associate, Baron von Herling, is impressed by the British military secrets and assures Von Bork that he will receive a hero’s welcome in Berlin. But Von Bork is awaiting one last transaction from an Irish-American informant, Altamont, who is to provide naval signals. Remembering the British navy is still quite formidable at this time, that’s a big deal.
Von Herling leaves and the housekeeper retires, switching off a light. Only then does Altamont arrive, making criticism of Von Bork’s safe, to which the German proudly boasts of its construction, including a double combination lock. The combination is “August 1914.” Ominous, no? Altamont reveals his distrust of Von Bork, noting that several informants have ended up in prison. He refuses to deliver the codes until he receives payment, and Von Bork refuses to pay until he’s examined the intelligence.
Within the package, Von Bork finds a book titled Practical Handbook of Bee Culture. It isn’t exactly what he hoped for, nor is the chloroformed rag pressed into his face by Altamont a moment later. The informant drops his disguise, revealing himself to be Sherlock Holmes, with Dr. Watson as the chauffeur who brought him. By the tone of the story, it’s obvious they are now past their primes, but they’re still more than effective. The aforementioned imprisoned agents were put there by Holmes himself, who fed the Germans some truly bonkers intelligence over the past couple of years as the road to war mounted. This case has taken him to Chicago, Buffalo, and Ireland, where he immersed himself in the study of the role of an Irish-American, even gaining entry into a secret society. Once the security leak was identified whereby the Germans were accessing British intelligence, Holmes sent his sights on the receiving agents. The housekeeper is revealed to be one of Holmes’ own agents, the light she switched off being a signal to he and Watson for their arrival.
Von Bork and the intelligence are taken to Scotland Yard. Thereafter, Holmes retires from detective work, occupying his days in the countryside with beekeeping and writing his magnum opus on investigation. Holmes speaks of the impending war, noting an east wind, which Watson misinterprets, replying that it’s very warm. Holmes’ words are the voice of prophecy and optimism:
“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 seems out of character for Holmes to mention a supernatural force such as God, but this is the nature of the times. England during the war turned it all into a religious crusade amidst all the other propaganda in order to bolster the resolve of every citizen. Indeed, it’s a chestnut that has served England well throughout the centuries, allowing the Isles to survive and thrive against all manner of invasions within and without. By 1917, the Americans had formally entered the war, and ACD had such undying faith in them that the war was essentially already over the moment the declaration was made. It was simply that the Germans didn’t know it yet.
As stated, this is the last of the canonical chronology, with the remaining stories taking place before this point. There are, of course, non-canonical stories that have since gone on to portray Holmes as the retired beekeeper well into the postwar setting, and there are others even tie back directly into this story, such as Nicholas Meyer’s The Canary Trainer. Even though the story takes place during the Great Hiatus, the end of the book sees Holmes met with the request to investigate Von Bork, suggesting this is the reason for his return to public life in the first place. It’s a nice touch, I think, one that offers a greater transition for the character, even if it is non-canonical. In a manner of speaking, the canonical character ends when he ceases to be a detective and becomes a spy for the government. It’s natural to assume that, given the brutality of the war, Holmes didn’t stay retired, a point that isn’t spelled out at all, but still gives the average person of the era hope that he’s still out there, thwarting the German war machine. That idea would take hold a generation later on the big screen in the form of Basil Rathbone, whose Sherlock Holmes films were mostly World War II propaganda of the same vein.
And speaking of tie-ins, it is also of note that within this story Holmes reveals his identity to Von Bork by revealing the many cases in which he’s had cause to serve with or against the Germans on a number of occasions, hearkening all the way back to Irene Adler and “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s that sort of thing that helps to bring it all full circle.
Also of note, this isn’t a tale told to us by Watson. It’s a rare third-person narrative. There will be one more tale like this in the next collection, as well as one told by Holmes himself. In any case, this concludes the collection The Last Bow with the anthology’s aptly-titled namesake story. It is also where, for this project, I say farewell to Stephen Fry’s narrations due to an unresolved copyright issue. While my buddy reader will get to continue on with Fry because she’s in the UK, I will be switching over to my trusty Heirloom Edition narrated by the equally incredible Simon Vance… not that any of you readers care. You’ll still get the commentaries of the remaining 12 stories, on schedule, allowing us to finish up before Christmas.