“It may, of course, be trivial — individual eccentricity; or it may be very much deeper than appears on the surface.”
—“The Adventure of the Red Circle”
If the revenge-seeking and punishment-obsessed narrative of “Wisteria Lodge” has a partner in His Last Bow, it is “The Adventure of the Red Circle.” After a tantalizing set-up reminiscent of Conan Doyle at his most Gothic, particularly the faintly supernatural set-up to The Hound of the Baskervilles (with added elements borrowed, in fact, from Conan Doyle’s earlier 1888 novel, The Mystery of Cloomber), the story quickly relaxes into yet another revenge tale, shifting the focus from the extralegal to the legal means of fitting the punishment to the crime. Commenting on both stories, critic Mary Frances Williams noted:
In the revenge plays, a character frequently laments “the indifference of kings and gods, and the inability of society to correct wrongs. This characteristic complaint is expressed in “The Red Circle” by the Pinkerton’s agent Leverton, who tells Inspector Gregson and Holmes, “‘We know [Gorgiano] is at the bottom of fifty murderers, and yet we have nothing positive we can take him on.’”Gennaro and Emilia Lucca flee from New York to London in an attempt to avoid Gorgiano, and the police of both countries are helpless and unable to protect them or to stop Gorgiano.
Indeed, the role of organized crime is central to the story while not particular to the puzzles Holmes sets out to solve. It would, given its time of publication (1911 in the Strand, which, although it frequently appears second or third in sequence in His Last Bow, depending on whether “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” is added or not, it was the fourth of the contemporaneous stories to be published following “Wisteria Lodge” in 1908, with “The Bruce-Partington Plans” following later that year, and “The Devil’s Foot” in 1910). The global scope of the plot is reinforced the presence of both Scotland Yard and the Pinkertons, and their collaboration would seem to call to mind the International Criminal Police Organization, which would not form until 1923, and not be known by its more common name, INTERPOL, until 1956.
What is uncertain is whether Conan Doyle’s references to organizations like the Carbonari, and the emphasis on Italian radicalism invading (or evading) on London’s streets are symptomatic of Conan Doyle’s penchant for exoticism or allusions to the role that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra had already begun to play across the Atlantic. As Edward H. Cohen noted in an essay on “Red Circle,” the story “is best construed as an episode of the rising tide of ethnic violence of foreign origin common in the early years of the twentieth century.” And, though the criminals and crime-fighters might shift, the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, stands alone, a fixed point, as it were, in a changing world.