Although Arthur Conan Doyle only wrote the first two Sherlock Holmes novels in Portsmouth, the city haunts the detective’s adventures.
Doyle and Portsmouth: a deeper literary history
In A Study in Scarlet (1887), Dr Watson returns to England after being injured at the Battle of Maiwand in the second Afghan War, and lands at Portsmouth jetty, a couple of miles from where Doyle was writing the novel at his surgery on Elm Grove. In ‘The Naval Treaty’ (1893), Holmes and Watson return to London from Woking by taking (in what seems an irrelevant detail) ‘a Portsmouth train’; that is, one which starts in Portsmouth, on the existing South West Railway line. In ‘The Cardboard Box’ (1893) Watson bemoans the winter weather and instead yearns for ‘the shingle of Southsea’. In ‘The Missing Three-Quarter’(1904), while in Cambridge Holmes enlists the services of a dog called Pompey: commentators usually read this as a reference to Mistress Overdone’s servant in Measure for Measure or to the Roman statesman Pompeius Maximus, but neither of these invalidates the possibility that Doyle had inserted another reference to Portsmouth for his own amusement.
‘His Last Bow’
The story which features Portsmouth most prominently, however, is one of the most atypical in the Holmes canon. ‘His Last Bow’ (1917) (alternatively subtitled ‘An epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ depending on which edition you read) is not really detective fiction, but a spy story with little element of mystery.
The first half of the story features a discussion between the England-based German spy Von Bork and Von Herling, Chief Secretary of the German legation, awaiting the arrival of their Irish-American agent, Altamont, who has further details of British military force. Altamont eventually arrives after Von Herling has gone, but reveals his true identity: Sherlock Holmes, who proceeds to capture Von Bork with the assistance of Watson (disguised as Altamont’s chauffeur). As Andrew Glazzard notes in The Case of Sherlock Holmes (EUP 2018), the oddity of the tale is that ‘its principal mystery is not solved by Holmes: it is Holmes – specifically, who or where he is’ (184).
Despite being set on the coast within sight of Harwich in Essex, the offstage events of Von Bork’s spy ring take place in Portsmouth. Altamont has a landlady ‘down Fratton way,’ and Von Bork has an extensive collection of papers relating to the ‘Portsmouth Forts’. Altamont reports that another agent, Steiner, has already had been captured: ‘he and all his papers are in Portsmouth gaol’. Following the closure of the prison near the dockyards in 1894, the reference here is to Kingston Prison, near Milton and Baffins, opened in 1877 (and operational until 2013), and not too far from Altamont’s landlady in Fratton.
Finally, once his identity is revealed, Holmes reflects to Watson that ‘It would brighten my declining years to see a German cruiser navigating the Solent according to the minefield plans which I have furnished’.
Most critical discussions of ‘His Last Bow’ focus on the historical context of its publication during the First World War, Doyle’s own military service, and the story’s status as propaganda (as Glazzard notes, the original subtitle of ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ describes not only the events of the story, but the story itself as text).
But the repeated references to Portsmouth point to another metatexual reading. Just as Doyle created Holmes while based in Portsmouth, so too does Holmes create his fictional alter ego Altamont in the city. Altamont is to Holmes as Holmes is to Doyle, a parallel made more dizzying by noting that Doyle’s source for ‘Altamont’ was his own father’s middle name. Both Doyle and Holmes seek to destroy their creations when they have served their purpose. Holmes, however, is rather more successful than Doyle in this regard, having completed the fictional Altamont’s mission by delivering Von Bork to the government.
In this light, the story’s experiments with narrative structure become clearer: regular readers of the Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine may have been slightly disoriented to find this story not only crossing borders from the detective story to spy fiction, but also as being narrated in third person rather than Watson’s usual first person narration, with Holmes and Watson seemingly absent from the first half. ‘His Last Bow’ is the first of the short stories to be narrated in this way (an experiment Doyle would repeat only once more, in ‘The Mazarin Stone’ four years later), though the technique does recall the American chapters of A Study in Scarlet.
Elegy and closure
The Portsmouth references in ‘His Last Bow’ also provide a sense of closure; for Doyle, writing in 1917, this was to be the last of the Holmes stories. Of course, Doyle had attempted to end the series before, supposedly killing off Holmes in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) and framing ‘The Second Stain’ (1904) as Holmes’ last case. But there is a difference of mood in ‘His Last Bow’, exemplified by the elegiac tone of the often quoted final paragraph:
Ironically, in this story Watson is far from the ‘one fixed point’, absent from most of the action and shorn of his narrative authority. Watson, the narratorial god of the Holmesian universe, has been displaced by God with a capital G, an unusually theistic moment in the Holmes stories. But in a wartime tale looking back to the eve of the conflict, and which sought to close thirty years of Holmes stories, it is unsurprising that Doyle would return to the city where Holmes had been created and at which Watson stepped back ashore after the Afghanistan campaign.
In fact, this third attempt to finish off Holmes in ‘His Last Bow’ would similarly be unsuccessful; four years later, Doyle would return to Holmes to start what would genuinely be the final series of stories, the Case-Book (1927).
Dr Christopher Pittard is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth. His works include Purity and contamination in late Victorian detective fiction (2013) and the forthcoming Literary Illusions: Performance Magic and Victorian Literature. He is the co-editor, with Janice M. Allen, of The Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes (2019).