There have been stories written about almost every period of Sherlock Holmes’ life, and his retirement is no exception. As it’s canonical that he retired in the Sussex Downs and took up beekeeping (The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane), plenty of writers have dragged him out for one last case, something more momentous or personal than he has ever faced before.
But so far my favorite retired Holmes story is this one. (Now, this is technically a spoiler, because his name isn’t revealed until the very end. On the other hand, you know what’s going on as soon as Mrs. Hudson appears, and in all likelihood you’ll find this story in a Holmes-themed anthology.)
It is 1941, and in the middle of the night a German agent named Boling parachutes onto English soil. His mission is to make contact with a fellow agent living in Eastbourne, who will then signal his own network of supporters to begin a campaign of sabotage. A single phone call to this Eastbourne agent and the preparation for an aerial invasion will begin.
The first house he comes to has lit windows, and when he knocks a very old woman, by the name of Mrs. Hudson, answers. Boling is dressed in a soldier’s uniform – deliberately using the insignia of a regiment on the other side of the country – and he spins a story of traveling and getting lost on the country roads. At this, another man emerges.
“If you have walked all night, you will be tired,” he said to Boling. “Stop and rest. We’re about to have some tea. Won’t you join us?”
“Thank you, sir,” accepted Boling heartily. This was another Londoner, very tall and as gaunt as a musket. He could not be many years younger than the woman called Mrs. Hudson, but he still had vigor and presence.
He stood quite straight in his shabbiest of blue dressing gowns. The lamplight revealed a long hooked nose and a long lean chin, with bright eyes of blue under a thatch of thistledown hair. Boling thought of Dr. Punch grown old, dignified and courteous. The right hand seemed loosely inside a pocket of the dressing gown. The left, lean and fine, held a blackened old briar with a curved stem.
While the old man explains that the house has no telephone, he offers Boling a chance to rest for a while with him and his companion, a retired doctor of a similar age, and conversation ensues. Now, bear in mind the whole story is told from Boling’s perspective. As far as he’s concerned, this is just a trio of old folks that he’s completely fooled with his training and memorized regimental facts. He’s overconfident, too satisfied in his powers of deception.
Such a state of affairs does not last. At this, I particularly want to praise the use of Holmes’ powers of observation. All too often these are well beyond the bounds of credulity, identifying locations from rare mud spatters and the like. But here everything that is noticed is plausible. In this the story plays out like a conventional mystery, where all the clues are in plain sight for the reader, and you can play along with Holmes in noting Boling’s errors and slip-ups as the story unfolds.
But Our Hero Was Not Dead by Manly Wade Wellman (also sometimes titled The Man Who Was Not Dead)
Availability: Free online, print
Word count: 3,000
First published: Argosy Weekly, Aug 9 1941 (available on unz.org here)
Where else to find it: The Game is Afoot, edited by Marvin Kaye, 1994, St Martin’s Griffin
The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Ellery Queen, 1944, Little, Brown & Company (the full anthology is available on archive.org here)