Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's His Last Bow

His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1917
Format: Hardcover, 308 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

While England may be the home of Sherlock Holmes, that doesn't in any way limit where the criminals come from. They seep out of the woodwork from Italy to South America. Homegrown or exotic, Holmes is on the case. From the insight that "The Upright Englishman" makes the perfect alibi to what exactly a missing train ticket means on a dead man, Holmes can recreate the largest of crimes from the smallest of evidence. Money, revenge, and love, they are always at the heart of the criminal. But Holmes himself isn't adverse to a little revenge, staging a touching deathbed scene with himself as star all in order to catch just one more criminal who would have gotten away. Sure it might be callous to trick Mrs. Hudson and Watson into thinking he's dying, but he'll be alive to apologize after he gets his man. Yet it is the illusive killing agents that are the most fascinating. The poison that is so rare that it incriminates versus exonerates the criminal. With all this fascinating criminality one wonders why Holmes would ever retire... but even in retirement he is ready to help his homeland when they need him the most as a wind from the east rises and the eve of the great war approaches. Sherlock Holmes will always be there, wherever he is needed most. Even if that means he's with his bees.

With His Last Bow you can see that Conan Doyle is trying to find a new way to invigorate his waning interest in Sherlock Holmes. Despite my dislike of The Valley of Fear there was no doubt that Conan Doyle enjoyed writing in a longer format with a very different subject matter. While sadly Conan Doyle couldn't omit Sherlock Holmes from the Sherlock Holmes stories, he could at least switch it up. Each collection of Sherlock Holmes stories contains about twelve plus adventures. While His Last Bow is the same length page wise as all other collections it contains a reduced number of tales. The reason for this is that he has lengthened his stories. Therefore the tales told here are not a quick short story, nor a full out book, yes, we're in novella territory, and I think perhaps this is where Conan Doyle should have always been. He sometimes struggles to maintain his stories for an entire book, hence the long jaunts to America, while his short stories are sometimes so brief that there isn't time to do the mystery justice. This is a happy combination of the two with Conan Doyle being able to bring in tropes he likes from his books, like breaking up the stories into acts, so that we get different scenes and the story isn't confined as much as previously. Holmes is able to delve deeper into the mysteries without having to have the story padded out or made spare. So while there is the occasional story that fails due to subject matter, the ones that work are all the better for this deeper investigation from the world's greatest consulting detective.

Yet there is one incidence in this book where Conan Doyle takes his desire to switch up his writing style in such a wrong direction that the story itself is almost painful to read. The titular "His Last Bow" eschews the narrative style of Watson we have grown accustomed to and instead opts for a third person narration style. While this in itself could have conceivably worked, given a good story, instead we are stuck listening to German braggarts with Holmes being nothing more than a deus ex machina once again. Seriously, what was the point of this story? It just doesn't work in the context of the greater canon. There is some speculation that it was written for patriotic propaganda for WWI, but even if that's true could it at least have been well written? Plus Holmes is working against himself. He's fed the Germans all this false information and then tells them it's false. Why? Why not let them believe it's true, it would be far better spycraft! Also, the two years with Holmes working undercover for this one moment, it seems like too much work for too little gain. I keep trying to think if the story would have worked written in the conventional first person narration, but yet again I hit too many stumbling blocks that are all tied up with the flaws of the plot. If Conan Doyle wanted to tell this story in a unique manner, and seeing as Watson is out of the picture for so long, why not for the first time in what is canonically the last story have Holmes have his say? That might have worked... it at least would have been different but similar enough to not stick out like the sore thumb that it is.

With fifty-six short stories in all one can start to wonder how it is that Conan Doyle was able to maintain a freshness to each individual adventure. The truth is that he sometimes didn't and in fact repeated himself, like how "The Red-Headed League" and "The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk" are basically one and the same with different coverings. But I never thought that he'd repeat himself so completely. "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" is a tale that was viewed as rather too gruesome for his reader's sensibilities, being omitted from the British edition of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and quickly being removed from the American edition because of our delicate feelings, rather ironic when you think how Conan Doyle depicted us Americans. In later British editions of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes it was put in and for us Americans it was included in this book. But one thing is very clear when you start to read this story, and that's Conan Doyle never expected it to make a comeback once his publishers had pulled it. Why do I know this? Because of "The Adventure of the Resident Patient." When I started reading "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" I had a weird sense of déjà vu. At first I was all, hmm, this seems rather familiar. Soon I realized it was word for word the same as another Sherlock story I read. Then I started to wonder if perhaps it was the same story just re-published. But no... it had a different title and a far different crime. So to the Internet I went. When the "gruesome" story was pulled Conan Doyle hacked it up and took the entire beginning about Poe and Henry Ward Beecher and made it the beginning of a new story he was writing, "The Adventure of the Resident Patient." So yes, he was basically plagiarizing himself and confusing his fans. Shame on you Conan Doyle for your laziness...

I find it ironic that "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was removed for it's controversial and grotesque subject matter when His Last Bow has Holmes again and again referring to his specialized work as being crimes of the grotesque. I think this is one of the incidents in which something is lost in translation over time as the English language evolves. Because grotesque to me obviously doesn't mean the same thing as it does to Holmes and therefore Conan Doyle. I have visions of Gothic horrors, abominations, nightmarish visions, whereas he probably means odd, unnatural, and bizarre. But even more ironically, I would still call the crime in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" grotesque, because that is what getting ears in the mail is... an abomination that only those of a truly perverse mindset would set out to do. So how do we take this definition shift in stride? Because if we are to take it more as it is seen today, it adds another, darker level to Holmes. Perhaps this is why there is so much fan fiction wherein Holmes is involved in the solving of the Jack the Ripper murders. Because these murders would fit both definitions of the word, past and present. A combination of old sensibilities with new. Either way you look at it this throw away line from Holmes in two or three stories really makes you think on what he does and how this effects his standing in society. He is a man apart. But not so apart that he is at the Phantom of the Opera stage that grotesque would imply... but still, it makes you think.

But what I have been thinking most of in reading all these tales is why is Lestrade the only policeman most people associate with Sherlock Holmes? Fifty-six short stories and four books and he only appears thirteen times! So he's only in about 20% of the stories! I mean, yes, he appears more then any other law enforcement officer, but he doesn't make the biggest impression. Inspector Hopkins is far more memorable due to his missteps as well as the random praise and hopes Holmes sometimes heaps on him in his four appearances. Throughout the complete canon there are 35 detectives, 16 agents, and 14 constables, 8 of which appear in multiple stories, and yet it's always Lestrade. Have we just decided to forget all the rest along the way? In fact this problem has become so ubiquitous that when Paul Chequer played DI Dimmock on the Sherlock season one episode "The Blind Banker" everyone was wondering where Rupert Graves as Lestrade was. I was even guilty of this! And I'm a huge fan of Paul Chequer! So imagine my surprise that there are all these other law enforcement officers wandering about!?! The truth is the world of Sherlock Holmes is a lot bigger than we have come to view it as. There aren't just more cops, there are more continents, more characters, more everything. We just have this confined little Victorian view that this is how it is. If reading all these stories has taught me anything it is that our mindset, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, needs to expand. It needs to encompass so much more without these assumptions. But then again, everything would be better with a more open mind.


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