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Mr. Holmes' Last Bow: A Story of Completion

Updated on July 25, 2015
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Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.

The Retirement to Sussex Downs

Most people who are familiar with Sherlock Holmes know only of his time with Doctor Watson and their days at 221B Baker Street. However, while it is part of the Sherlock Holmes canon, few people remember the stories of Sherlock Holmes’ retirement in Sussex to keep bees. Conan Doyle penned three stories of Holmes in his later years: The Blanched Soldier, The Lion’s Mane, and His Last Bow. It is within His Last Bow, we see Holmes dust off his deerstalker and pit himself one last time against the forces of evil. In this case, it was against German intelligence, set in the year 1917 and told in the third person.

In the waning days of his career Holmes' decision to leave his London headquarters is only mentioned in The Lion’s Mane, one of the only two stories he penned himself.

"It occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him.” - Holmes, The Lion's Mane

The cover of "His Last Bow"
The cover of "His Last Bow" | Source

Holmes had found an all consuming passion with bees. This is quite plausible given his eternal fight against boredom. The great detective needed something to keep him busy and fascinated. Keeping bees and making honey would be a full time job for someone who needs to notice things and keep his wits about him.

Conan Doyle leaves us with the detective in quiet retirement. We can see him gracefully leave the pages of the Strand Magazine to take his place in the pages of classic literature.

Of course, others have penned more later adventures with Holmes. Novels by Laurie R. King such as The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and a newer collection of stories by Kim H. Krisco, Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years speak of a not so quiet life in Sussex with new partners and further adventures.

But what’s a few random cases for the world’s greatest detective?

Poster for Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen
Poster for Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen

The Story of Mr. Holmes

In the film Mr. Holmes, it is here in Sussex that we find Holmes in decline at the age of 93. It is 1947, the world has moved on. The days of gas lit streets are done and horse drawn carriages have given way to automobiles, airplanes, tanks, and modern industry.

An elderly Holmes is fighting against the degradation of his own mind. His memory for small inconsequential things has deteriorated to where he must keep a log of how many times a day he forgets people, places, and things. On the upside, his powers of observation and deduction really have not diminished. Although at one point he says about Ann Kelmot's picture, "You know a few years ago I could have told you everything about that woman in that photograph. Certainly, I'd recall what had become of her - whether she was victim or culprit. But that night, I couldn't remember any of it. All I knew for certain was that the case was my last and it was why I left the profession."

Holmes has decided that he correct one final injustice – to write the story down as it was; not as Doctor Watson told it. While Watson did publish the case, his version of the story is not the truth. The truth of what happened is much darker and was much different than what was written.

He wants to put the story right.

He is armed with only three things: his memories of the case (which are fading), a worn picture of his client’s wife, and a boy named Roger who is interested in the story. It is the last point that keeps Holmes writing.

The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

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In many senses this plot is deep like an onion. There are layers of intricacy upon layers. From a character point of view we understand why Holmes has chosen to recount his case properly. People don't know who he really is. It is also a challenge to his deteriorating mind. On the surface, it is important to him to plumb the depths of his own mental faculties and in that sense, the detective is triumphant. In quite another sense, we understand that the case has really very little importance at all - it is only important in regards to its intimacy. The true case - the one that's really important - is the one he takes completely for granted that exists in the present moment – the case of the dead bees in his own apiary. The consequences of this failure become apparent within the movie and I will not divulge them here.

This movie is a brilliant piece of work. Ian McKellen’s performance as the nine decade old detective is as brilliant as his performance in each of the younger flashbacks. As an old man he projects a sense of fragility and feebleness. He gives a sympathetic performance to a character who was often rude and brusque in his younger years and now has found companionship with an eager boy who shows that bit of promising spark. The audience feels Holmes general frustration at the loss of his once brilliant faculties – and with that we mourn them.

The story itself brings a new dimension to the character. We see a fictional character now as a real person at the end of an amazing life. A character who was larger than life must now bury that image in favor of truth. The protagonist sees that and acknowledges it when he needs to write the names of people he sees daily on the cuff of his shirt. In short, an immortal character has been given a dose of mortality and we see where everyone eventually must acknowledge their own inevitable limits.

Holmes explaining to Watson the facts of a case
Holmes explaining to Watson the facts of a case | Source

Facts v. Fiction

While I am not going to give away any spoilers in this film, I will say that this story is about completion. It’s about finishing things that were started and giving them proper endings. It is about the lines we draw between truth and fiction and the importance we give both of them.

Throughout the movie we see difference in the character that Watson has created in his friend, Holmes and the “real person” that he is. Throughout Doyle’s canon, Holmes has objected or shown some bit of derision to Watson’s writings as being somewhat over romanticized. So it is no surprise that we now see why Holmes is not happy. The world knows the illusion not the man.

The closest comparison I can make is to see the persona of Sherlock Holmes as he was played by Basil Rathbone verses the portrayal of Holmes by Jeremy Brett. The Rathbone Holmes was a product of its 1940's generation with all of the markings of those stereotypes generated by an earlier 20th century actor, William Gillette.

Gillette gave us the deerstalker, the oversized pipe, and the ”Elementary, Dear Watson”. Gillette wanted to have a pipe so he could have a prop to fiddle with during stage performances.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes | Source

The "Jeremy Brett" Holmes was closer to how Conan Doyle had written him and how he was illustrated by Sidney Paget in The Strand magazine. Brett’s Holmes dressed like a gentleman with a top hat and smoked cigarettes more often than pipes. It is easy to see how Brett’s Holmes was the personification of Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle's mentor and medical professor at the University of Edinburgh.

What we see in this movie is that the real Holmes is neither of these portrayals but is a master of his craft and a man devoid of all of those stereotypes. The one constant is his mastery of deductive reasoning where even at age ninety he can still deduce where someone was and what they had done.

Holmes is the representation of fact, truth, and logic. Watson, on the otherhand, was the voice of fiction. Truth versus romance.

Okay, only one spoiler. There is one point in the movie where Holmes has to correspond with a man in Japan. What he’s going to tell the man is a story that he’s making up. This act takes a complete turn away from how he was writing the case he was trying to recall. He wrote his account of what happened at his desk. When he decided to make up a fantasy for another client, he used John Watson’s desk and pen. He used the tools of a man who told popular fiction and romance as opposed to the equipment he used to recount a reported non-fiction case of what actually happened.

When lives come to an end, things have to be settled and completed. Holmes knows that his time on Earth is not going to last forever. He knows that in order for him to live comfortably and at peace, he must put some of his own ghosts to rest. He also needs to make his own final arrangements for whenever his day comes.

Hard truths versus the lies we tell ourselves.

How Close to Doyle's Vision of Holmes

Holmes Actor
How True to the Books
Basil Rathbone
Not really true at all. He was more a movie star version of the character at that time. He wore the deerstalker in the Victorian versions, but then he did a modernized version of the character.
Jeremy Brett
Probably one of the truest to what Conan Doyle wrote. He only wore the deerstalker when in the country. He smoked cigarettes mainly, but had a long clay pipe when he was doing a "three pipe problem".
Benedict Cumberbatch
Not true as he is doing a modern depiction of Holmes in the present day. However, his sociological tendencies would be consistent with the character as Doyle described him as a "calculator".
Robert Downey, Jr.
There is a strong argument to be made that Downey is a stripped down version of Sherlock Holmes. No deerstalker, has a constant fight with boredom, not good with people, and obsessive to a case. The drugs and alcohol are there as well as his fighting in baritsu, single sticks, and boxing.

Final Words

I had dinner with an old friend from high school who was introduced to Sherlock Holmes the same time I was. I told him that it was due to that literature class that I had grown to love Conan Doyle’s stories and built an appreciation that led me to meet my wife.

My wife, also a huge Holmes enthusiast – probably moreso than myself – takes the stories of Sherlock Holmes seriously. So far, she’s been quite pleased with the job that Benedict Cumberbach had done with the modern depiction of the character. In her mind, she has made a line in the sand between his work and Jeremy Brett’s as well as a line between Cumberbach and Robert Downey, Jr.

Even now, I can hear her voice in my head saying, “Downey is very entertaining, but he’s no Holmes.” It is an issue that's sparked friction in my household. I've taken a different view. I would not so much as disagree but offer to her that the dynamic between Downey’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson is the most realistic of any production. It shows them, not just as friends but roommates with all of the bickering that goes on with two people that have lived in close quarters for a prolonged period of time.

Downey is the stripped down Holmes.

Downey’s Holmes like that of Ian McKellen’s is without all of the fictions made by Gillette and by Paget. It is possible that once you remove all of those things you have the real Holmes after all.

Now we have McKellen, a ninety year old post World War Two version of a older detective - Sherlock Holmes without all of the gimmicks given to him by Watson, Gilette, and Paget. The old facts stored in Holmes’ perfect mind attic have faded. All he keeps in there now is how to keep bees and how to keep his memory sharper with royal honey derivatives. That man might be a bit quirky. What about him do we know for sure? He’s a smart guy who trained his mind to be observant and logical. The fight for justice is still in him. He will always do the right thing. That is what McKellen has given to us. An old man with his eyes open who can’t be tricked and is fighting to save his own mental stability.

That is an adventure that many of us may need to face. Despite all of the Soduku and Crossword puzzles we do to keep our mind sharp, some of us will succumb to a new kind of reality that we don’t want to see. And we will either wage the fight of our lives to keep our mind sharp and in the present moment or lose and fall to the ghosts of the past.

© 2015 Christopher Peruzzi

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    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I've seen most of the movie and TV depictions of Holmes, but have to admit Mr McKellen's version has eluded me. Must look it up. Thanks for sharing.

    • SM OBrien profile image

      Sharon OBrien 2 years ago

      I told you that we were never to speak of Elementary...ever.

      Yes, McKellen was fantastic as always. This is a fitting story worthy of the character and of The Canon.

    • cperuzzi profile image
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      Christopher Peruzzi 2 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Great feedback from two critical Holmes aficionados - AWESOME!

      Mr. Holmes is certainly one of your more cerebral movies. Don't go looking for big explosions or a lot of blood... well, there is a little blood, but that would be telling.

      I really think we're starting to see the last of the over the top deer stalker Holmes personas. Many of the modern day pastiches are giving us the gentleman detective versions in the Victorian era. The modern day versions have started to portray Holmes as sociopathic drug addicts (I'm pointing to Elementary, Sherlock, and to some degree the character of Dr. Gregory House) - they certainly have one of their feet on the side of angels, the other I'm sure is planted on their personal commitment to escape boredom.

      This version of Holmes has found his personal "mind attic" in disrepair. Picture a room with a broken recliner, a faded picture on the wall, a table that wobbles when you use it along with a file cabinet that doesn't close right. With that you need to remember that none of the furniture can be replaced and that's all you're ever going to have. Now picture that "Better Homes (or Holmes) and Gardens" is going to pay it a visit for an article they're writing.

      The film is excellent. McKellen is fantastic. And the story is bittersweet.

    • SM OBrien profile image

      Sharon OBrien 2 years ago

      Oh, very well done! It has been, to some extent, sad to me that Holmes and Watson drifted apart in their later years - but it is also how life goes. And, as you note, I consider the Downey films to be fun but not representative of Holmes. I am a bit of a purist with the characters after all. I do note that I appreciate Law's version of Watson. That dynamic is present in the Cumberbatch and Freeman version as well (recall Watson's reaction when seeing a back-from-the dead Holmes, and the line "I always hear 'punch me in the face' when you're speaking'"). Probably fairly accurate for this era.

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      Dave Draghi 2 years ago

      Brilliant assessment Chris. I am looking forward to seeing the movie.