"His Last Bow" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in September 1917, appearing in The Strand magazine in the United Kingdom and in Collier's magazine in the United States, under the tile "His Last Bow - The War Service of Sherlock Holmes". It would be republished on October 22 of the same year, under the title "His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes", as the final story in the anthology His Last Bow
Unusually for a Sherlock Holmes story, "His Last Bow" is not told from the point of view of Dr. John Watson but is instead narrated in the third person. "His Last Bow" is also more of a spy story than a detective story, there being no mystery for Holmes to solve.
The action takes place in August 1914, just prior to the start of the First World War, an ongoing conflict at the time of the story's first publication. A German spy named Von Bork has been in England since 1910. Through several agents, he has gathered a significant amount of information relating to the British armed forces and foreign policy. He is unaware that a large amount of that information is false because one of his agents is really Sherlock Holmes, who is working for the British government.
Chronologically, "His Last Bow" is the last Sherlock Holmes story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continued writing more stories about the brilliant detective for almost another decade, those stories being collected into the 1927 anthology The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. However, the action of each of those stories takes place before that of "His Last Bow".
The story begins on the evening of August 2, 1914. Germany is threatening to invade France and Belgium. It is uncertain whether or not Britain will join the war by coming to the aid of those two countries.
On the English coast, two German diplomats and spies, Von Bork and his superior Baron Von Herling, are meeting at Von Bork's country cottage. Von Bork has been living in England for four years. Since war appears to be imminent, his family have returned to Germany and all of his servants have left him, except for his maid, an old woman named Martha. Through several paid agents, Von Bork has amassed a good deal of secret information related to the British government and military, which he has passed on to his masters in Germany. He shows Baron Von Herling the safe, which he usually hides behind a curtain, where he keeps all the secret documents which his agents have given him. Von Bork tells Baron Von Herling that one of his agents, an Irish-American called Altamont who hates Britain more passionately than any German, will be coming that evening. According to a coded telegram that Altamont sent, he will be bringing details of new naval signals.
As Baron Von Herling leaves the cottage, he notices that the maid Martha has a lamp on in her bedroom and is sitting at the window, stroking a cat. He likens her to Britannia, comfortable and completely unaware of what is going on around her. As Baron Von Herling leaves in his large Benz, he passes a little Ford going in the opposite direction. The Ford is being driven by an old man and Altamont is sitting in the passenger seat.
Altamont arrives at Von Bork's cottage with a package which he claims contains copies of papers about the new naval signals. He notices Von Bort's safe, which has not been covered up by the curtain, and remarks that it does not look very secure. Von Bort disagrees. He tells Altamont that it is a double combination safe and that its combination is AUGUST 1914. Von Bork is very proud of having predicted, four years earlier, the time at which war between Britain and Germany would come.
Claiming that he believes that the police have almost caught up with him, Altamont says that he wants to get out of England. He points out that five of Von Bork's agents have been arrested recently and even suggests that Von Bork himself may have tipped off the police about them after they were no longer useful to him.
Altamont appears anxious to get the five hundred pounds which Von Bork promised him for the papers. Von Bork writes him a check and then opens the package. He is briefly surprised to find that it contains a book called Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, before he is rendered unconscious when a sponge soaked in chloroform is held against his face. After he has been knocked out, Von Bork is tied up.
It is revealed that Altamont is really Sherlock Holmes and that the old driver of the Ford is his friend Dr. Watson. Holmes, who is now about sixty years old, explains to Watson, whom he has not seen for many years, how he was persuaded to come out of retirement and bee-keeping. The Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister both came to his house to ask for assistance in capturing Von Bork. Adopting the alias Altamont, Holmes spent almost four years in Irish Republican circles, first in the United States and later in Ireland, before he came to the attention of Von Bork. Holmes empties Von Bork's safe of all its documents and puts them in a briefcase. Sherlock Holmes knows that all of the information in them has already been passed on to Germany and that a lot of it was supplied by himself, and is therefore false. However, it will be helpful to the British government to find out how much the Germans already know.
The maid Martha is revealed to have been working for Holmes. She put out the lamp in her bedroom as a signal that Baron Von Herling had gone and it was safe to enter. Several of Von Bork's agents were arrested because Martha passed on the addresses of people to whom he sent letters to Holmes. When she sees the unconscious and bound Von Bork, Martha is genuinely concerned for Von Bork's safety because he always treated her as a good employer.
When Von Bork regains consciousness, he is furious at having been double-crossed by one of his agents and swears that he will get his revenge. Holmes is not troubled by this and calmly answers that Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran frequently said the same thing. Von Bork demands to know Altamont's true identity. Holmes says that he has had dealings with Von Bork's family before because he often worked for Germans in the past, for example, having prevented a a scandal from taking place in Bohemia. Von Bork realizes that he has been defeated by the famous detective.
Still tied up, Von Bork is taken to the little Ford. The briefcase full of the secret documents he obtained is placed on the seat next to him. He is to be driven to London where he will be questioned at Scotland Yard. Before they get in the car, Holmes takes Watson aside for a chat, saying, "it may be the last quiet talk that we ever have". Commenting on the war that is sure to come, Holmes says:
"There's an east wind coming ..., such 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 never the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
The 1943 Hollywood movie Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, is credited as an adaptation of "His Last Bow". In the film, Holmes is contacted by Sir Evan Barham of the "Inner Council" of British Intelligence to investigate the actions of a group of Nazi saboteurs operating inside Britain. The group's acts of sabotage are described almost simultaneously by a radio announcer broadcasting from Germany who calls himself the "Voice of Terror". At the climax of the film, Holmes reveals that Sir Evan Barham himself is both the leader of the gang of Nazi saboteurs and the "Voice of Terror", his broadcasts being recorded onto gramophone records, picked up by planes during air raids and flown to Germany. It is further revealed that Sir Evan Barham is in fact Heinrich Von Bock. Von Bock took the place of the real Evan Barham when he was captured by the Germans during the First World War and masqueraded as him for twenty-four years. The film ends with Holmes giving his speech about the coming of "such a wind as never blew on England yet", taken verbatim from "His Last Bow", however, the words are deliberately misattributed to Winston Churchill.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson - The Twentieth Century Approaches, a 1986 TV movie from the Soviet Union which stars Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitali Solomin as Watson, is based on "His Last Bow", "The Adventure of the Second Stain", "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans".
- ↑ The only other one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fifty-six canonical Sherlock Holmes short stories to be narrated in the third person is the 1921 story "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone".