Wednesday, September 26, 2018

His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Don’t count him out yet
His Last Bow, published in 1917, is the fourth collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. The book consists of eight Holmes adventures that were previously published in magazines, mostly The Strand but also Collier’s. In the preceding short story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, its final selection, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” published in 1904, mentions that Holmes had retired from detective work. In a brief preface to His Last Bow, Watson explains that Holmes is still retired, and the adventures detailed in this volume occurred prior to his retirement, so presumably these stories take place before 1904. The one exception is the final story, “His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes,” which takes place during World War I and has Holmes squaring off against German spies.

The volume opens with “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” which is unusual for being a two-parter, twice as long as a typical Holmes and Watson adventure. The story, involving the murder of a mysterious Spaniard, is not really one of Holmes’s best, so its double length seems unjustified. Other lackluster selections include “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” in which Holmes sends Watson to Switzerland to do his leg work, and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which was one of Conan Doyle’s favorites but seemed pretty obvious to me. Still, we’re talking about Sherlock Holmes stories here, so even the mediocre ones are better than most anything else in the mystery genre. Even when the cases aren’t sufficiently baffling, the atmosphere and the character development still satisfy. Although the first short story collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is definitely the best, it is remarkable how Conan Doyle kept up the quality of the stories through the subsequent volumes, as His Last Bow has no shortage of great mysteries.

“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” is among the absolute best of Holmes’s adventures. In this delightfully complex case, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft asks him to recover some missing blueprints for a top secret submarine and to investigate the death of the government clerk who apparently stole them. In “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” a woman receives two human ears in the mail, and the most remarkable thing of all: they don’t match! In “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” Watson, finding Holmes deathly ill and delirious, must discern the cause of his friend’s sudden failing health and bizarre behavior. In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” a landlady asks Holmes to investigate an extremely reclusive tenant who may be involved in criminal activity. In some instances, the final outcomes of these cases may not be entirely baffling, but Holmes still manages to surprise the reader with the perspicacity of his deductive reasoning, and Conan Doyle provides satisfyingly unique and intricate back stories for the supporting characters.

In the final selection, “His Last Bow,” Conan Doyle really deviates from format and begins with a conversation between two German spies, which continues through roughly half the story before our heroes show up. With Holmes in the service of British intelligence and the story’s concluding patriotic message, this adventure calls to mind the Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, which often pitted Holmes and Watson against the Nazis during World War II. Chronologically, “His Last Bow” is the final Holmes adventure, but one more volume of 12 prequels, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, would be published in 1927. I haven’t yet read that fifth volume of short stories, but if this fourth book is any indication, Holmes and Conan Doyle still have a lot of life left in them.

Stories in this collection
The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
The Adventure of the Red Circle
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
The Adventure of the Dying Detective
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

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