From The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 18 - 27.
The year 2004
marked the sesquicentennial of the birth of the world’s first — and still finest — consulting
detective. At the annual Baker Street Irregulars’ birthday celebrations in New York, even more so
than usual, the absent — but very much presumed-still-with-us — guest of honor was
both toasted and serenaded with numerous rounds.
as they were with their own protracted jollifications, it was not surprising,
therefore, that Sherlockian celebrants collectively overlooked a piece of
inconvenient news that appeared in early March: the death of Joan Riudavets
Moll on the Spanish island
of Menorca. A cobbler by
trade, Señor Moll breathed his last on 5 March 2004—which made him, at the age
of 114, the oldest person in the world, at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
believe otherwise. And they continued to believe otherwise when eight months
later, on 18 November 2004, Moll’s “successor,” a former American railroad
postal worker by the name of Frank Hale, Sr., died at his home in Syracuse, New
York, twelve days short of his 114th birthday.1
purists (pun intended) will no doubt point out that Messrs. Moll and Hale were
merely the oldest “documented” living people, and that claims regularly arise
about even older individuals whose date of birth cannot be authenticated. To
support their contention that Sherlock Holmes, whose own birth conveniently
falls into the undocumented category, is still alive—if not actually kicking—on
his small farm on the South Downs, they point to the “fact” that no obituary of
the great detective has ever appeared in any British newspaper. Surely an
individual as well known and as well loved as the great Sherlock Holmes could
not have taken his leave of this world without copious public notice, comment,
and general lamentation, they reason.2
necessarily. In fact, it was precisely because of Holmes’s extraordinarily high
public profile that no obituary or other such public notice ever appeared. And
how could that be? Because Holmes died shortly before the Great War, when news
of his death would have given aid and comfort to the soon-to-be enemy. More importantly,
it would have demoralized the British at a time when they were in desperate
need of some encouraging news. The British government therefore—either in or
out of the person of Mycroft—decided that Holmes’s death was truly a story for
which their world was not yet prepared.
hypothesizing on what happened, let me first elaborate on what most certainly
didn’t: the two-year accounting of events presented to a gullible public by the
unknown, omniscient narrator of “His Last Bow.” Sherlockians take as an article
of faith that the Master was also a master of disguise. This is certainly true,
but like everything else about the great man, it has its inherent limits. The
success of Holmes’s many disguises is based upon two factors: the relative unfamiliarity
of his audience with the assumed role, and the relatively limited duration of
example, we know that Holmes was able to disguise himself as a decrepit Italian
priest in “The Final Problem” and even as an old woman in “The Mazarin Stone.”
But that doesn’t mean that he would have been able to successfully infiltrate
the College of Cardinals in Rome for a week—or
the women’s water closet at Covent Garden for
even a minute!
therein lies the fatal rub. There is a significant difference between Holmes’s
convincing Von Bork, a German for whom English was a second — or possibly even
third — language, that he was a rebellious Irish-American, and convincing real
Irish-Americans in Buffalo and Chicago—and especially Irish natives in Skibbereen — that he was indeed one of them. It would be even harder to do so
without causing any suspicion over a period of two full years. One has only to
imagine one of his newfound comrades in crime asking — casually or otherwise — “So,
what part of Ireland do your people come from?” and then subjecting Altamont to
the same “Do you know so-and-so?” type of questions that Holmes himself used to
expose James Winter, alias Morecroft, alias Killer Evans, alias John Garrideb,
in “The Three Garridebs.” One false answer — and how could there not have been
many? — and Holmes would have been exposed to the wrath of a very vengeful mob
with virtually no chance of being rescued by his government “handlers,” assuming
that he even had any.
if Holmes had been willing to assume such a risk himself, it is doubtful that
the British government would as well. Holmes’s in-depth, even if slightly out
of date, knowledge of both the criminal and espionage networks of London would have been put to much better and more
constant use by his being kept in England throughout the crucial,
pre-war period. Moreover, one has to wonder why it would even have been deemed
necessary to send Holmes upon such a protracted and complicated mission in the
first place. Surely Holmes would have been perfectly capable of outwitting the
pompous and self-inflating Von Bork without having to go to such elaborate and
potentially dangerous lengths. The most obvious methodology would have been
“feeding” one of the other named anti-English activists (i.e., Jack James,
Hollis, and Steiner) the same false information. Not only did Von Bork already
trust them — thus obviating the need for another go-between — but also, as
authentic spies, they would not have been at risk of either betraying
themselves or — as is more likely — being inadvertently exposed by a third party,
such as the “planted” housekeeper Martha.
Last — but
certainly not least — is the fact that Holmes’s entire two-year charade depended
upon one of Von Bork’s subordinate agents — i.e.,
not even a primary one — noticing him in Skibbereen. What if this person had
overlooked him? Or what if he — or even the primary agent for whom he worked — had
discovered some other likely candidate first, one whose criminal credentials,
at least in terms of longevity, were equal or superior to Altamont’s? In either
of these very plausible eventualities, Holmes’s two-continent subterfuge would
have come to naught, and two precious years of his invaluable time would have
been effectively wasted.
there is the curious nature of the adventure’s title. After having been
seriously embarrassed in 1893 when “The Final Problem” turned out to be not
quite so final after all, neither Watson nor the editors of The Strand Magazine would have been eager
to have another such public relations fiasco on their hands. This time,
therefore, they must have known that the adventure they were about to make public
really would be Holmes’s last bow.
finality of the title is even more curious in light of the celebrated dialogue
with which the narrative concludes. Before they stand famously upon Von Bork’s
terrace overlooking the lights of Harwich, Holmes remarks to Watson that he
“understands” that Watson will be “joining us with your old service.” Clearly,
Holmes’s use of the plural pronoun “us” here implies that he will continue to
assist in the British war effort, most probably for the duration. Indeed, how
could he be expected to do otherwise? If the premier — accompanied by the foreign
minister — could persuade him to interrupt his peacetime retirement for the sake
of capturing a single German spy, imagine how much more persuasive their
importuning would be once war had actually broken out.
the account of the past two years that he synopsizes is true, Holmes, at age sixty,
is an extremely active man, one capable of protracted periods of onerous
undercover work, and whose mind has shown no signs of any age-related deterioration.
In short, the Holmes that we see at the end of “His Last Bow” effectively tells
us that he will not be returning to his bees on the South
Downs anytime soon, and gives us no mental or physical reason to
is there any reason to doubt that Watson, whatever his own wartime service,
wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to chronicle any of Holmes’s post–Von
Bork adventures. The entire Case-Book,
after all, was published after “His Last Bow,” with the very last Holmes
narrative ever, “Shoscombe Old Place,” not seeing the light of published day
until the spring of 1927. So how then could Watson have known that the
adventure that he was “chronicling” in the summer of 1917 (when the story would
have been sent to the printers) — nearly ten years earlier — would absolutely,
positively be Holmes’s last bow?
answer to that morbid query is, alas, elementary. By the summer of 1917, Watson
knew conclusively that Holmes would be playing no more leading or even
supporting roles upon the British criminal stage. And he knew that because he
knew that Holmes was either dying or already dead.
would Watson have perpetrated such a ruse upon the British and American reading
public? The answer to that lies in the date of the adventure’s publication and
its original subtitle, “The War Service of Sherlock Holmes.”
story, however, begins exactly three years earlier. On 2 September 1914,
Charles Masterman, a Liberal MP from West Ham who had been appointed to be the
head of the War Propaganda Bureau by then Chancellor of the Exchequer,
David Lloyd George, convened a secret meeting of prominent British authors.
Among those who attended were H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, G. K.
Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford, John Masefield, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Though
several of the literary luminaries would end up doing little or nothing,
Masterman had certainly found his man in the arch-patriot Conan Doyle, who
quickly penned the penny recruitment pamphlet To Arms, and would go on to give frequent public lectures promoting
the war and putting the best face possible on the less-than-stellar British war
pleased was the War Office with Conan Doyle’s own answering of their call that
they soon arranged for him to become the “official” public chronicler of the
British war effort. At first this consisted of sending high-ranking military
officers down to Windlesham to provide him with knowledgeable eyewitness accounts.
By the spring of 1916, he finagled permission to see for himself, first in
Flanders with the British troops, then in northern Italy
with the Italians, and finally in the Ardennes
with the French. While Conan Doyle was overseas, his on-site reports appeared
in The Daily Chronicle. Safely back
in July, he quickly churned out a second promotional pamphlet, A Visit to Three Fronts. The rest of his
front-line experiences would come in handy in completing (1927) his
comprehensive, six-volume history of the war, The British Campaign in France and Flanders.
December 1916, Lloyd George, the man behind Masterman and the War Propaganda
Bureau, became premier. Sometime in April 1917 (Conan Doyle does not specify
the date in his 1924 autobiography, Memories
and Adventures), the Welshman
invited the Scotsman to 10 Downing
Street for a private breakfast. An unidentified
third party—perhaps the Foreign Minister, Sir Arthur Balfour?—was to join them,
but did not show.
to Memories and Adventures, they
talked of many things, e.g., the heroic death of Lord Kitchener, the “splendid
work of the Welsh Division at the front,” Conan Doyle’s own visit to the
fronts, his long-standing promotion of the use of body armor, and the nascent
revolution in Russia.
Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any mention of why the prime minister had
invited Conan Doyle to breakfast in the first place.
Doyle’s reticence is hardly surprising in light of the fact that the War
Propaganda Bureau remained an official state secret until the late 1940s. Any
attempt to penetrate the shroud of secrecy must, perforce, take into account
the timing of their casual repast—in April 1917, the prime minister was indeed
a very busy man. On the sixth of that month, the heretofore isolationist Americans
had finally declared war on Germany.
On the eighth, the British offensive for the new year would begin with an
assault on Arras.
it was neither whimsy nor the need for a good chinwag that induced the prime minister
to invite the celebrated popular writer—arguably Britain’s most celebrated popular
writer—to breakfast that morning. In light of Lloyd George’s previous oversight
of the War Propaganda Bureau, Conan Doyle’s exemplary service thereon, and the
story that appeared in the popular press five months later, it is not difficult
to guess what the prime minister eventually asked, after first impressing upon Conan
Doyle the obvious propaganda value of having the great Sherlock Holmes in
active service. (As Holmes himself “recounted” in “His Last Bow,” “Strong
pressure was brought upon me to look into the matter.”)
Conan Doyle then impressed the same upon Watson, or whether Watson was
subsequently summoned to Downing Street
himself, is unknowable. But the result was the same: Watson was prevailed upon
to contribute not his stethoscope, but his pen, to his country’s service in
what we would now call a disinformation campaign.
his own moral compunctions about fictionalizing for the sake of his country
might have been, Watson clearly saw the practical necessity of doing so. The
Allies had received a significant shot in the arm with America’s
official entrance into the war, but it wouldn’t be until October that the first
doughboys would actually make it “over there.” In the meantime, the
long-suffering British Tommies and French poilus
would be on their own again along the Western Front, a thousand-mile maze
of trenches and fortifications that had proven to be little more than a muddy
slaughter ground during the first three summer offensives, first along the
River Marne (1914), then in the fields of Flanders (1915), and finally outside
Verdun and along the River Somme (1916). By the time the fighting that year
finally petered out in November, the Allies had sustained some 1.2 million
additional casualties. In December, they would sustain one more—the resignation
of Prime Minister Asquith in what amounted to a “no confidence” vote from his
situation on the battlefront was mirrored by the situation on the home front.
The British public had wholeheartedly supported the war effort in August 1914,
but as it entered its fourth year, enthusiasm was ebbing as was the reservoir
of troops. To address that shortage, the first of three Military Service Acts
(conscription) had been passed in February 1916; by June, all able-bodied, single
men between the ages of eighteen and forty-one would be considered fair game.
then, however, there was still destined to be a shortfall; hence the
founding—in February 1917—of the all-volunteer Labour Corps, a non-combat group
that able-bodied men of Holmes’s and Watson’s age might have been expected to
join, and that therefore might have been the primary target audience of Lloyd George’s
“request” of Conan Doyle. A secondary target audience might well have been all
able-bodied women, as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps had been launched only a
month later in March 1917.
its potential recruitment value for would-be non-combatants, a war story
featuring Sherlock Holmes would undoubtedly boost the morale of all those already
in uniform. What British Tommy would not have swelled at the prospect of having
the legendary detective fighting on his side? And what German Boche would not
have groaned—just as Von Bork did when he finally deduced the name of his
adversary—at knowing that he was fighting against him?
Watson was free to fashion his own fable, and it is therefore hardly surprising
that the one he came up with greatly resembled The Valley of Fear, the most recently published Sherlockian
narrative, which had begun its nine-month serial run in The Strand Magazine in September 1914. As has been painstakingly
pointed out by writer Anthony Boucher, the plotlines of those two narratives
are remarkably similar: Each involves the protracted infiltration of an
American criminal organization, one that requires the hero’s assumption of an
elaborate alias and then proving himself worthy by participating—or seeming
to—in various criminal enterprises.3
the role of a spy would have been a logical one for Watson to come up with in
that — as a man of sixty — Holmes could hardly be expected to be serving on the
front lines.4 In addition, there was a
juicy, high-profile spy case maturing at that very moment, one that would have
naturally suggested itself to the otherwise unimaginative Watson. That, of
course, was the case of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari.
Accused by the French military authorities of being a double agent (and thus
having fooled them), the renowned former exotic dancer was arrested secretly in
February 1917. After several months of private interrogation, she was brought
to public trial on 24 July and convicted shortly thereafter by a military
tribunal operating in camera. On 15
October, she would be executed by a firing squad.
to why Watson made Altamont an Irishman, consider
the equally high-profile hanging of Sir Roger Casement in August 1916.
Casement, an Irish idealist who had received his knighthood by decrying
European treatment of the natives in the Congo
had taken part in an abortive attempt by the Germans to supply arms to
rebellious Irish nationalists. (Conan Doyle himself had pleaded against
Casement’s execution on the grounds that Casement had done much good in his life
and was obviously now mentally unbalanced.)
and fictionalized as the events of “His Last Bow” patently are, they still
allow us to make a couple of deductions regarding Holmes’s last days, though
first, it bears noting that it is not absolutely essential that Holmes had
died — at least not at that exact moment in time. Any number of debilitating diseases,
especially those of the mind, would have had the same effective consequences
and thus prompted the same literary “solution.”
must have died (or become permanently disabled) at some point in time when the
British government — be it Mycroft or others — believed that withholding that
information could possibly have national security benefits. Holmes’s death (or
permanent disability) would have occurred in such a way that the public would
not already have learned of it. This argues in favor of a quiet death (or
permanent disability), and probably even an anticipated one so as to allow
Holmes to have been removed from his retirement cottage while still in good
enough health so as not to engender any suspicion among his South Downs
neighbors. The most logical timing of that removal would naturally be 1912, the
year that Holmes would have sailed for Chicago
had the events recited in “His Last Bow” actually taken place.
perpetrated its hoax for practical military reasons, the British government saw
no reason to belatedly enlighten the public at the conclusion of the war and
thus admit to its own manipulation of the truth. Neither did Watson, as doing
so would have potentially compromised the marketability of any additional Holmes
adventures that he may have already been contemplating. As we know now, an even
dozen would eventually be forthcoming, beginning in 1924 with “The Illustrious
Client” and concluding — this time for good — in 1927 with “Shoscombe Old Place,”
which — it bears noting — is the only story in the Canon that features a delay in
the reporting of an actual death, for which the authorities “took a lenient
view of the transaction.”
From 1927, it would be only seven more years until
the founding of the Baker Street Irregulars, at which point it was still
possible — however improbable, actuarially speaking — that Holmes was in fact still
alive. Christopher Morley and the Baker Street Irregulars therefore simply believed
or pretended to believe what they wanted to believe, and the lack of
countervailing evidence in the form of any public obituaries was all the proof
they didn’t need.
than seventy years further on, the case for Holmes being with us is simply no
longer credible. Indeed, not only would Holmes have substantially exceeded the
longest documented human lifespan ever of 122 years, but he would now be in
serious danger of becoming truly immortal, an apotheosis that should give all
devoted Sherlockians serious pause. It suggests that we are no longer merely
members of a society devoted to keeping green the memory of one of the best and
wisest men who ever lived but an irregularly organized religion!
In these blasphemous waters Sherlockians would do
well to reread Holmes’s peroration at the end of “His Last Bow” — an elaboration
of then Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey’s own dire pronouncement on 4 August
1914: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again
in our lifetime” — and note the unmistakable intimations of his own mortality:
an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It
will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its
blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger
land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.
should also take note of the judicious use of the adverb “before.” As has been
the premise of this trifling monograph, Holmes did in fact wither some time
before “the most terrible August in the history of the world.” Even so, his
work on this earth was still not done, thanks in equal measure to the
ever-vigilant contingency planning of the British government and the patriotism
of his trusted friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson.
it would turn out, Holmes’s posthumous “war service” was not only desirable,
but might well have been critical. By the time “His Last Bow” was published in
September, the British offensive of 1917 — which had gotten off to such a
promising start with the capture of Messines Ridge in early June — had bogged
down in the third Battle of Ypres, another bloody stalemate rendered even more
noxious by Germany’s introduction of mustard gas.5 By year’s end, the British had suffered
another 400,000 casualties.
ongoing conscription would fill the ranks, but volunteers would still be needed
to support the men on the front lines. And they came out in droves, perhaps in
part owing to the two-year example of sacrifice and self-denial set by that
sagacious sexagenarian, Sherlock Holmes himself. By the fall of 1918, over
389,000 men would be serving in the Labour Corps, and another 57,000 women in
the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — renamed Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps in
November, the four-year storm wrought by that bitterly cold east wind would
finally clear, thanks primarily to the infusion of two million American doughboys
and a new weapon called the tank. Dr. John H. Watson and the late — but still
great — Sherlock Holmes played a definite, albeit unquantifiable, supporting
role. That is something that Sherlockians everywhere can truly believe in for
years to come!
At press time the current title-holder, Hryhory Nestor, of western Ukraine, is only a sprightly 115 years old. He'll turn 116 on 15 March 2007.
Over the years, of course, numerous Sherlockian scholars have proposed that Holmes has indeed passed beyond the Reichenbach. Though he cannot swear that it had happened by the time of his writing (1933), Vincent Starrett, in the essay "Ave Sherlock Morituri et Cetera" in his seminal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, concedes that "the day will come. . .when Sherlock Holmes will be assumed to have left this mortal life behind." One of the first to fix an actual date and cause was E. V. Knox in "The Passing of Sherlock Holmes" (reprinted in Seventeen Steps to 221B, edited by James Edward Holroyd, London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1967) who, in 1948, posited that Homes, at the age of ninety-three, had just succumbed to a bee sting, possibly from an Italian queen. In Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (New York: Bramhall House, 1962), William S. Baring-Gould records that Holmes died of old age (retarded in great measure by his discovery of the benefits of royal jelly) on 6 January 1957 at the exceedingly ripe old age of 103. David Stuart Davies's dramatic presentation, Fixed Point: The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes (1991), has Holmes dying peacefully in his sleep in 1939 at the Montague Nursing Home. June Thompson, in Holmes and Watson: A Study in Friendship (London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1995), contends that Holmes died sometime shortly after the publication of his own last narrative, "The Lion's Mane," in 1926, but that he "preferred his death to pass unnoticed out of his hatred of publicity."
Anthony Boucher, "Introduction" to The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, New York: Limited Editions Club, 1952, reprinted in Introducing Mr. Sherlock Holmes (Edgar W. Smith, ed.), Morristown, NJ: The Baker Street Irregulars, 1959.
At a dinner held in his honor in the town of St. Menehould on 1 June 1916, Conan Doyle was asked by French Divisional-General Humbert if Monsieur Holmes were a soldier in the British Army. Conan Doyle's reply: "Mais non, General; il est trop vieux pour service" (A Visit to Three Fronts, p. 19).
By an amazing coincidence, Von Bork's prediction that "The Heavens, too, may not be quite so peaceful . . . " came to pass within days of the publication of "His Last Bow" when, on the night of 3 September 1917, a Zeppelin raid over the Thames River Estuary near Harwich killed 108.