The Mystery of a Century: Who Wrote His Last Bow?

Though ice cold logic was ever his bread and butter, Mr. Sherlock Holmes had a talent and taste for histrionics. While skilled as an actor, as “The Sign of Four” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” proves, Holmes was also a dramatist, as demonstrated in “The Naval Treaty” and “The Six Napoleons.” The great consulting detective was a blend of the rationalist and romanticist and bore the prestige to conclude an investigation with a theatrical twist, from time to time, before taking a bow. Even unto His Last Bow, which celebrates its one hundredth anniversary of publication this year. And for that century, it has not ceased to answer curtain calls. His Last Bow is a crucial and unusual collection from the illustrious career of Sherlock Holmes, laced as they are with rare displays of the art of detection together with biographical controversies and paradoxical mysteries that beg the question of who precisely recorded these exploits of the Master of 221b Baker Street?

The American edition of His Last Bow released eight cases purportedly from the manuscripts of John Hamish Watson, M.D.: “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” and “His Last Bow.” Though issues arose concerning the credibility of several of these adventures, it should be established at once that the “Adventure of the Cardboard Box” is immune to such challenges. The tale was originally published in the British edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1893, while the American publishing houses rejected it as its events include marital infidelity. But, as Holmes himself notes, the age succumbs to change. By 1917, enthusiasm for the feats and faculties of Sherlock Holmes took precedence over such literary scruples, and “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” was included in His Last Bow for the American public. The other seven, meanwhile, present a range of reliability, testing the instincts of those who have come to recognize and revere the Agency of Holmes and the archives of Watson.

One of the most important debates surrounding His Last Bow is the suspicion that these narratives were not penned by Mr. Holmes’ faithful Boswell, Dr. Watson. Though the authorship and authenticity of A Study in ScarletThe Sign of FourThe Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Memoirs of Sherlock HolmesThe Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear is never doubted, scholars—largely engendered by the views of Fr. Ronald Knox—have raised questions over the legitimacy of aspects of The Return of Sherlock HolmesHis Last Bow, and most especially and infamously The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Evidence of a deutero-Watson abounds in unaccountable contradictions and inconsistencies ranging from the character of Mr. Holmes, to the given dates, to matters of sheer improbability. Among the compendia, His Last Bow stands out as the compilation where opinions and theories stray equally toward those who support the authorship of Watson and those who contest it, making it a volume of particular interest to the student of Mr. Holmes’ career.

To qualify one of the suppositions of Fr. Knox, he posed that many of these latter chronicles, beginning with those in The Return, were indeed written by Dr. Watson, but he denies that they ever occurred, dismissing them as mere fabrications invented for Watson’s own financial benefit after the passing of his famous friend and colleague. Other suspicions of authorship were leveled against His Last Bow by Sir Sydney Castle Roberts in his work on the life of Dr. Watson, and though Mr. Roberts did not defy the veracity of the work, as did Fr. Knox, he did suggest that they were very possibly written by an editor under Watson’s direction. Interestingly, the narrative of “His Last Bow,” from which the volume takes its very title, falls quite clearly under this possibility, lending some strength to the hypothesis, as it is one of only two entries in the entire Canon—the sixty public records of Mr. Holmes’ career—written in the third person. The other is the dubious and disputed “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” leaving “His Last Bow” in very poor company. Messrs. H. W. Bell, Christopher Morley, and Gavin Brend all entertained the notion that Dr. Watson’s wife of 1902 was the author of both these accounts, which is a thread not to be dismissed out of hand. Regarding “His Last Bow” alone, however, while Carl Simpson speculated that Holmes himself documented the piece, Edgar W. Smith argued that, given the level of political moment it recounts, readers must suspect the powers of Mycroft Holmes in handling their release from the British Government, which organization that colossal man largely comprised.

In his biographical study on Sherlock Holmes, T. S. Blakeney discovers a curiosity in the timeline of His Last Bow that also points to an editor’s hand. The events are not taken from late in the career of Sherlock Holmes, as their later publication might intimate. Rather, the cases are scattered clear across the period that Mr. Holmes was active, ranging from 1885’s “The Adventure of the Red Circle” to 1914’s “His Last Bow.” The collection differs in this way from The Adventures, The Memoirs, and The Return, whose installments typically take place within a given decade. According to Mr. Blakeney, this wide range of time from which His Last Bow draws its material is suggestive of a publishing supervisor selecting from a span of time events which struck him as worthy out of the notebooks filed in the Cox and Co. dispatch-box. Though Dr. Watson’s preface makes some account for this when he writes, “Several previous experiences which have lain long in my portfolio have been added to His Last Bow, so as to complete the volume,” there is reason to question such a divergence from his literary customs.

In assembling this corpus, and in keeping with the preface, the alleged editor (thought by William S. Baring-Gould to be the Scottish physician and novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), may have selected cases that lay ready for their readership while “good old Watson” dictated the startling events that unfolded on the threshold of World War I in “His Last Bow,” which events he eludes to in his preface, saying, “The approach of the German war caused [Sherlock Holmes], however, to lay his remarkable combination of intellectual and practical activity at the disposal of the government, with historical results which are recounted in His Last Bow.” Though the Sherlock Holmes of His Last Bow, is, for the most part, Sherlock Holmes, and the voice is largely Watson’s, one cannot fail to note certain fundamental errors—such as dating “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” in March 1892. (This date, of course, falls within the Great Hiatus. In 1891, after plunging his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, beneath Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes feigned his own death by disappearing into Tibet until his return in 1894. Cf. “The Final Problem,” “The Adventure of the Empty House.”)

As an anonymous Cornish boatman put it, “When Holmes fell over that cliff, he may not have killed himself, but all the same he was never quite the same man afterwards.” Though an editor may have been involved in these publications—given Watson’s age, perhaps—His Last Bow is not without critical consistencies with the undeniable Watsonian reminiscences. One extremely notable contribution to be found in His Last Bow regarding the life of Sherlock Holmes is a verification of the year of his birth. Though the specific birth date of Mr. Holmes is never given, the great detective’s arrival upon this earth can be inferred by applying his own methods of analytical reasoning to the clues afforded by the Canon. In The Adventures’ “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which took place in June 1889, Mr. Holmes calls himself a “middle-aged gentleman,” a term generally and historically accepted as age thirty-five, placing his birth in 1854. Further and final evidence is provided in “His Last Bow,” where Holmes is described as sixty years old in 1914, again placing his birth in 1854. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Nota Bene: Nowhere does this oft-misquoted phrase appear in the Writings. The word “Elementary” is spoken by Sherlock Holmes in closest conjunction to his saying, “my dear Watson” in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” where they are separated by fifty-two words.)

His Last Bow is a challenge for Sherlockian and Holmesian scholars alike to sound the depths of their knowledge, and wrestle with strange subtleties of text with an eye that sees and observes. As Mr. Holmes remarked, “there is nothing so important as trifles.” The mystery of Sherlock Holmes is very much alive in the mysteries of His Last Bow, for they further the saga-shifting concept of apocryphal writings—a suspicion that has egged and enticed the intellects of civilized readers for a century, and shall, God willing, for centuries to come. For, if Dr. Watson did not, in fact, compose that which is immortalized in his good name, then are there criminals of romance at large still whose reckoning must fall to those who might supply the deficiencies of the police. The game’s afoot.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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