Sherlock Holmes is one of the most legendary literary figures, not only among lovers of detective fiction. Stories of Holmes’ adventures—and there are only 56 short stories and 4 novels—have been translated throughout the world and made into plays, films, and television programs. There are more than 50 magazines devoted to the discussion of Sherlock Holmes and countless societies formed by people to celebrate him. When Arthur Conan Doyle sold all rights to A Study in Scarlet in 1886 for a mere 25 pounds, he could not possibly have imagined what a star he, Holmes’ assistant Dr. Watson, and the detective himself would become.
Why is Sherlock Holmes so popular? Even his dedicated readers admit that his plots are sometimes rather thin and that the details do not always add up. For instance, “The Red-Headed League” has inspired several articles pointing out its inconsistencies; notes from a Sherlock Holmes’ society meeting discussing the same matter have even been published. Yet enjoyment in the story has never abated. It seems that Doyle has succeeded at something far more important than fabricating complicated mysteries: he has recreated the world of London in the 1880s; he has supplied rich detail and compelling characters; most important, he has invented Sherlock Holmes, one of modern literature’s most enduring characters.
“The Red-Headed League” is one of the earliest Holmes stories. It shows Holmes foiling a bank robbery attempted by a master criminal. The affair is brought to Holmes’ attention by a pawnbroker, upset at having lost his job with a group called the Red-Headed League of copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Holmes is rightly suspicious, and after doing a bit of investigating, figures out when and where a robbery will take place. He then arrives at the scene first, accompanied by an agent from Scotland Yard, to arrest the criminals.
Michael Atkinson sees in this story “a symbolic commentary on the nature of plot itself’; it shows the reader how the plot of the story can be used to get underneath the plot to show deeper connections between characters and action. This is highlighted by Holmes’ movements and thoughts mirroring the physical action of the story. As Holmes physically moves from Baker Street to Saxe-Coburg Square to the concert hall and back to Baker Street again, his mental process proceeds from logical guess to confirmation, reflection, and finally, to the formulation of a plan. The aptly named John Clay is the antiHolmes. His scarred forehead, symbolizing “reason disfigured,” provides a contrast to Holmes, whose reason is straight and sure. Clay insists on his nobility while Holmes brushes aside any idea of nobility as playing a part in his foiling of the crime. The two men even react to their knowledge of each other in a similar fashion. When he recognizes the description of Clay, “Holmes sat up in his chair in considerable excitement” but then lapsed into his usual calm demeanor; Clay exclaims “Great Scott!” when he sees Holmes but then composes himself “with the utmost coolness.” According to Atkinson, these correspondences serve to show “an abyss which is always in the neighborhood of a Holmes story, the chasm which separates thought from moral feeling here, the terrible gulf between the powers of reason and the health of the soul.”
Other readers appoint themselves critics in enumerating the inconsistencies and the flawed logic of the plot. Vernon Goslin actually copied pages out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in order to make the discovery that “Wilson had just achieved the incredible feat of writing, with a quill pen, over one million words in longhand, in precisely 224 hours!” Other issues abound. Where did the criminals put the dirt they dug out of the ground to make the tunnel? If Wilson applied for the job in late April, “[j]ust two months ago,” how could the League have closed its doors in mid-October? More irking, perhaps, is the fact that Holmes and Clay are clearly acquainted, for Holmes “had one or two little scores of [his] own to settle with Mr. Clay.” Clay, aka Vincent Spaulding, therefore, must have recognized Holmes at the pawnshop—why then did this criminal “at the head of his profession” and, according to Holmes’ estimation, “the fourth smartest man in London,” continue with the plan that could only deliver him into the hands of the arch sleuth? For other readers of “The Red-Headed League,” the story is best appreciated through the sheer enjoyment of the reading. As with other Holmes’ stories, the humor, plot-enriching details, and characters are certainly enough to make the story successful.
Humor is perhaps the most apparent aspect of the story. The very plot itself centers around comedy. Jabez Wilson seems not to understand the incongruity of the tale he relates, though his narrative abounds with ludicrous details: Spaulding’s unprefaced declaration that “I wish to the Lord, Mr. Wilson, that I was a red-headed man ”; Wilson’s description of the London street as men came out in answer to the advertisement—”From north, south, east, and west every man who had a shade of red in his hair had tramped into the city.. .Fleet Street was choked with red-headed folk, and Pope’s Court looked like a coster’s orange barrow”; the criminals’ insistence that Wilson provide his own pen and paper, all while paying him the generous-fo-rthe-time sum of four pounds a week to copy the encyclopedia; and, of course, the image of Wilson himself, laboring over his longhand and hoping to “get on to the B’s before very long,” who never realizes that such a foolish task must be a ruse to get him out of his shop. Surely one can overlook a few inaccurate dates for the sake of such an imaginative tale.
The details of character and those of the London surroundings work in conjunction with the unraveling and meaning of the plot. Very little in “The Red-Headed League” is superfluous—everything has significance. Names play an important role. John Clay is so named because he travels underneath the earth. Perhaps less apparent is the implication of the name of Jabez Wilson, though certainly many readers may note its uniqueness. The name Jabez, however, belonged to a Biblical scribe who belonged to the tribe of Judah. Compare these two men then, one who recorded the words of an important tribe in the development of the JudeoChristian religion, the other who blindly records the dry words of an encyclopedia. On the other hand, Merryweather’s name does not have such strong implications but simply provides another spot of humor; he is “sad-faced” and “solemn,” speaks “gloomily” and bemoans that he is missing his bridge game to save his bank. The descriptions of London, too, highlight the unraveling of the plot. Holmes and Watson, along their journey through the maze of lies, “rattled through an endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets until [they] emerged into Farrington Street.” “We are close there,” Holmes then says, “there” being the physical destination as well as the solution to the puzzle.
Much has been said about the characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, as an integral part of Doyle’s success. Indeed, the two men work off each other, but in a complementary fashion as opposed to the adversarial relationship between Holmes and Clay. Watson, although a bright man and a medical doctor, plays the slow-witted counterpart to Holmes’ quick deductive reasoning. When presented with the same clues, Watson never sees things through Holmes’ eyes. Indeed in “The RedHeaded League” Watson “thought over it all, from the extraordinary story of the red-headed copier of the Encyclopaedia down to the visit to Saxe-Coburg Square,” yet has no inkling as to what the details he has observed and heard mean; “I tried to puzzle it out,” Watson says, “but gave up in despair.” The reader, on the other hand, can put together at least a shadow plot of the mystery. That Wilson’s shop abuts a bank is a clear indicator. When Holmes explains the solving of the crime to Watson, it is clear that Watson—and the reader—has been privy to almost all the same information as the detective. Exceptions include what Holmes saw on Spaulding’s trousers (they were “worn, wrinkled, and stained”) and what he determined from tapping the pavement with his walking stick (the cellar extended underneath the building to the rear). Holmes certainly is privy to greater knowledge about European criminals and their tendencies, yet it is not necessary to know that one “John Clay, the murderer, thief, smasher, and forger” seeks to rob the City bank to know that the bank will be robbed.
Some critics find that the Holmes character is presented to the reader as a nearly perfect crime solver. Others, however, find that much of the appeal in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories lies in the reader’s being allowed to practice his or her own deductive powers along with Holmes. These two ideas are not contrary. All readers can reason out some of the mysteries as does Holmes. But Holmes is far different from the average reader of his cases. Not all readers have Holmes’ keen perceptive ability or his firsthand knowledge of the criminal. Most importantly, readers do not share Holmes’ ennui, a boredom with life so great that he is driven to solve crimes in “one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” Doyle has said, “Sherlock is utterly inhuman, no heart, but with a beautiful logical intellect.” Truly, Holmes does not interact with the world around him except to step in, briefly, and make it right again. Chances are that the reader does not share these commonalties with Holmes. Thus the stories about this singular character’s exploits provide a bit of adventure and challenge in the reader’s own existence.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.