“The Englishman is a patient creature, but at present his temper is a little inflamed, and it would be as well not to try him too far.”
—“His Last Bow”
Chronologically, “His Last Bow” is the final Holmes story. Set in the early days of the Great War, in August of 1914, the story is presented, variously, as “the war service of” or “an epilogue of” Sherlock Holmes, both fitting subtitles for the nuanced tale of espionage and double-cross, featuring the Great Detective called out of retirement to engage in spy-catching for the British government. As with so much of the later canon, the parallels between the character and author are evident, as, by 1917, Conan Doyle’s time was dominated by the war effort, and speaking and writing on behalf of the British Foreign Office. “His Last Bow,” with its globe-trotting and patriotic subtext, was precisely the morale-boosting message soldiers and citizens alike needed. The truth, as Catherine Wynne noted in a 2010 essay, was that Conan Doyle’s messages were decidedly more mixed:
In the concluding lines of “His Last Bow” Holmes points to the coming storm from the East, observing, “a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has passed.” In the sixth and ﬁnal volume of The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1920) Doyle concludes that the “war of 1914 may be regarded as the end of the dark ages and the start of that upward path which leads away from personal or national selﬁshness towards the City Beautiful upon the distant hills.” However, the appendix to volume six features a piece previously published in The Times, in which Doyle describes a visit to the Hindenberg line where he sees the bodies of mutilated horses and men. One image of a “shattered man, drenched crimson from head to foot, with two great eyes looking upward through a mask of blood … might well haunt one in one’s dreams.” Doyle processes war differently in his different literary forms. “His Last Bow” celebrates the blood sacriﬁce, the Boer and First World War histories laud the gallantry of soldiers, [and] the journalism from these conﬂicts recounts the trauma of mutilated bodies.
Such observations show that, unlike Holmes and Watson, Conan Doyle’s military service had brought him face-to-face with the atrocities of war and ushered a well-worn pragmatism on the sense of duty, obligation or well-intentioned politics that so often emerge to justify them. In “His Last Bow,” Holmes never questions the larger implications of that withering wind, but his author, who was to suffer terrible losses in the latter years of the War and its aftermath, would soon temper his patriotism with a quest for deeper meaning.