Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of His Last Bow, published in 1917. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
This story is undoubtedly one in which Holmes is incredibly cruel to Watson – not nearly as cruel as allowing Watson to believe him dead for three years, but certainly on par with it. In fact, considering that the story is set in the second year of Watson’s married life (so either 1889 or 1890, depending on what year you believed Watson was married in), this smaller betrayal certainly echoes his larger one in 1891. (Interestingly, this is the only story in His Last Bow that takes place before the Great Hiatus.)
But Holmes’ cruelty doesn’t extend just to making his friend believe that he is dying. During the story, he is downright brutal with Watson, making withering comments like “if you had shared my secret you would never have been able to impress Smith with the urgent necessity of his presence” and that “you are only a general practitioner with very limited experience and mediocre qualifications.”1 The fact that Watson did not recognize two rare tropical diseases is hardly a reason to doubt his medical talents – Holmes himself later claims that he has to go to a specialist in the exact same kinds of disease!
Even Mrs. Hudson isn’t spared Holmes’ cruelty, as she is not only duped, but treated abysmally by her long-time tenant. This is one of the few stories where Mrs. Hudson gets any sort of characterization, which is fantastic, but unfortunately for her that characterization is to cement her place in the canon as “long-suffering” at the hands of Holmes.
And at the end, Holmes can do nothing but congratulate himself:
“That pretence I have carried out with the thoroughness of the true artist.”
From a canonical perspective, we’re introduced to Inspector Morton, who Watson claims as an “old acquaintance,” even though this is the only time in the canon he is mentioned. Some Sherlockians posit that Morton maybe the unidentified partner to Inspector Brown in The Sign of Four, however. As far as historical references go, we see another example of the casual racism of the time, this time by the twice-mentioned “coolies,” referring in this case to an unskilled laborer in Asia, but since then being a racial slur against all “ignorant” Asians. These kinds of unskilled laborers will common in the United States as well as England at the time, and in fact a number of these so-called “coolies” worked on the westward expansion of the railroads in the late 19th century, and their presence ultimately caused the creation of many of the West Coast Chinatowns we have today.
The case itself is fairly non-existent and the treatment of Watson and Mrs. Hudson is terrible, but this story is great as an example of not only the complex relationship between the two men, but also of just how complex of a man Holmes himself is.
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- Although admittedly, Holmes later softens the blow on Watson’s medical qualifications, saying “Do you imagine that I have no respect for your medical talents?” ↩