His Last Bow is a Sherlock Holmes adventure published by Arthur Conan Doyle in England inside the September 1917 edition of the Strand Magazine by Colliers Magazine in the United States. Although considered part of the official canon, the story stands out from those tales most familiar to casual fans of Sherlock Holmes for a variety of reasons. Foremost among those reasons is that His Last Bow is not part of Dr. John Watson’s recorded accounts of the Holmes greatest cases and is therefore written from the third person perspective. Less obviously different from the stories that came before is singularly interesting bit of trivia about Holmes which occurs during the course of his investigation in the story: the first, last and only record of Holmes riding in an automobile to be found in the official canon. And finally there is the fact that His Last Bow contains the record of a case investigated by Holmes after his retirement to Sussex to work on his voluminous guide to bees. Also of interest to the more than casual fan of Sherlock Holmes is reference to his being 60 years old in the year in which the story is set. Since that year is 1914, all it takes is some simple mathematical calculations to roughly arrive at his birth year.
The provenance of His Last Bow also sets it apart from the vast majority of the other stories about Sherlock penned by Doyle. Although politics enters into the arena of various Holmes stories in ways that verge from the overt to the barely detectable, none were as directly inspired by the motivation to use Holmes’ popularity as a political soapbox quite as directly as this story. Doyle recounted that it was an almost offhand inquiry from a French military officer that brought into the discourse of the resistance effort during the First World War the question of how Sherlock himself might have contributed to victory against the dreaded Hun.
The response to that enigmatic query from Sherlock’s creator was a bit of propaganda that enlarged importance of supporting the war effort not just to the size of Holmes coming out of retirement to fight the good fight, but being coaxed out of that retirement by no one other than the Prime Minister himself. Since the war with Germany—not yet referred to as World War I, obviously—had already been dragging on for three years with massive numbers of casualties piling up every day and no end in sight—is the backdrop for the story, the actual mission that Holmes is called upon by the Prime Minister to put his deductive powers to use solving is the crack open an increasingly dangerous German spy ring. As a result, His Last Bow reads more like a toned down James Bond spy story told in the third person than the more familiar first person account of Holmes figuring the who, how and why of a murder. As war propaganda, His Last Bow is far more palatable than as a necessary addition to the canon of the great detective’s most important cases.
One of the most interesting aspects to keep in mind while considering the background of how His Last Bow came to become part of that canon is the way it foreshadows the question of how Holmes might have contributed to the effort to stop German aggression in a completely different war a couple of decades later. The image that His Last Bow cannot fail to stimulate in the mind of readers is likely less jarring and far more seamlessly integrated into the overall mental image one produces while reading the stories among those familiar with the series of Sherlock Holmes films produced by Universal Studios in the 1940s. Those images of Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the inordinately bumbling Dr. Watson chasing after Nazis actually make a better fit with His Last Bow than they ever did with the original stories of murder and madness on the streets of Victorian London. That goes especially for Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror which claims to be based on His Last Bow but aside from the necessary change of updating the story from World War I to World War II contains precious little resemblance to the actual narrative aside from Holmes’ enigmatic observation (a little too enigmatic for Watson’s mental capacity when he shows up at the end) about a wind coming from the east.