His Last Bow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
There’s only book left now. I’ve been taking my sweet, sweet time with polishing off the Sherlock Holmes canon—I started two years ago!—simply because my bookish diet requires a great deal of variety or I end up just stagnating and boring myself. A bit like Holmes himself, really, without the attendant misogyny, genius, or lackadaisical house manners. But just as I eventually finished Star Trek: The Original Series after four years (and with the rest of the franchise to go), so too must I set down a Sherlock Holmes collection only to realize that the next one I pick up will be my last. I’m mentioning it now because finishing a series gives me such an enormous sense of satisfaction that all the ennui hits me at the penultimate installment.
His Last Bow collects eight Sherlock Holmes stories that first ran in The Strand Magazine from 1908 to 1913, as well as including the eponymous “His Last Bow”, which ran in 1917. (“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” is included in American editions of this collection; Brits will find that story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.) Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are on the case yet again, with Watson serving as Holmes’ faithful biographer for seven of the eight stories collected here. The British government under fire, women vanishing from holiday, severed ears turning up in the post of respectable women, and German spies are just the tip of the iceberg.
I am going to give Elementary a proper review once the season is over, but, as it’s one of the few television shows I watch on a weekly basis (the others being RuPaul’s Drag Race, Once Upon a Time, and Community), it’s pretty close to the surface for me. I know I was rough on it before it premiered, but I’m happy to report that I was wrong and the show is quite good. Even the procedural bits are neutral at worst and good at best. But one thing I quite enjoy about it is how Joan doesn’t give Sherlock a pass for his misogyny. In a recent episode, he snarks that her bad mood surely must be due to her impending period—her own snarky response? “Couching it as a scientific observation totally negates the misogyny.” I bring this up because this isn’t necessarily a characterization for Watson that’s inherent solely to Liu’s Watson. Reading these stories, we see Holmes’ casual misogyny up close, but Watson always draws attention to it and frames it in a way that shows he disapproves. To a point, of course; this is still circa 1910. In other stories, Holmes’ personal misogyny is often contrasted against capable, smart women—Irene, of course, but also Mary Morstan, Watson’s beloved—but, alas, such ladies missing in this collection. As such, I have decided to conclude that a Dr. Moore Agar, mentioned in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” as someone who met Holmes under supercool circumstances, is a lady. (Presumably Holmes has not realized yet.)
I don’t have a particular story that stands out in this collection for me. Doyle’s affection for Holmes, which is notoriously shaky, remains firm, but the mysteries are a bit lacking compared to the rest of the canon. True, the point of a Sherlock Holmes story is rarely the mystery itself; to quote one Captain Apathy over at The A. V. Club, “the mystery has always been nothing but the background against which we see Holmes work and interact with the other characters.” (Modern mystery should take that to heart, I am just saying.) But even “A Scandal in Bohemia” has a fairly bland mystery at the heart of it; it’s merely the fact that they’re tangling with Irene that makes it interesting. Holmes and Watson don’t meet anyone like that in these stories. Well, Mycroft does make an appearance (in the story that explains that he is, in fact, the British government and emphasizes his size), but we’ve already met him and he functions mostly as a liaison in the story. Doyle has proven himself quite capable of writing memorable one-off characters—I mean, just look at how Irene has captured the pop cultural imagination—so to have my interest piqued by a character mentioned only by name (and conveniently not by pronoun!) felt a little… off.
But this also means that most of the focus is on Holmes and Watson’s relationship. Were I a fresh-faced tumblrina superimposing book quotes over color-saturated .gifs of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in GIMP, I would find plenty of material in His Last Bow. Their banter is sparkling, with Holmes almost more playful and more sincere than usual. In fact, the reason that Holmes is telling Watson now about how important Mycroft is because they’re much closer now. While Watson remains amusingly clear about Holmes’ faults (one story opens up with a list of reasons why Holmes is the worst tenant in London), we also see them being more sincere with one another about how important they are to each other. In “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”, Holmes experiments on the both of them with something that proves almost fatal; they stagger out of the room into the lawn, fall down on the ground, and we’re granted a very rare glimpse of Holmes being fearful for Watson and apologetic for his actions. The last story in the collection, “His Last Bow”, essentially a piece of World War I propaganda (albeit written in the third person), is mostly an excuse for a much older Holmes and Watson to reunite on one last case. They even take time away from removing a dangerous German spy to custody to chat about the good old days. I closed the book and hugged it to my chest, uttering, as I so often do with them, “Oh, boys.”
Bottom line: His Last Bow doesn’t boast any particular stand-out stories (unless being a piece of World War I propaganda makes a story a stand-out) or stand-out one-off characters, alas, but that does mean it focuses very much on Holmes and Watson’s friendship through their golden years. For the completionist who can take 75% procedural to 25% character development.
I rented this book from the public library.