See Duncan Ross
Clay’s apparent desire to learn the pawnbroking trade and his hobby of photography, like the assumed name of Spaulding, mask his intent to rob the City and Suburban Bank. Identified as a “murderer, thief, smasher, and forger,” he is skilled enough at crime to have eluded the police for years. Holmes seems almost respectful when he identifies Clay as “the fourth smartest man in London” and compliments him on the ingenuity of his scheme. Clay’s acid-splashed forehead and pierced ears hint at a colorful past, but the reader learns little about him aside from his royal blood, aristocratic education, and extreme pride. These attributes suggest that Clay was led to crime by the challenge, rather than the need for money. He may even have a Robin Hood-like motive of stealing from the rich to aid the poor, since police agent Jones mentions that Clay “will crack a crib in Scotland one week, and be raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the next.”
Holmes’s reputation as a lover of puzzles and solver of crimes leads people with particularly baffling problems, like the one confounding Jabez Wilson, to seek him out. Holmes possesses a nearly superhuman ability to read a person’s background by observing small, seemingly-insignificant details, and Watson states that Holmes’s powers of reasoning make him appear to be “a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals.” Holmes is aided in his task by a thorough familiarity with previous criminal cases and the inhabitants of London’s underworld, along with a scholarly knowledge of such obscure topics as varieties of cigarette ash and kinds of tattoo marks. Possessing a sort of split personality, Holmes swings between moods of thoughtful inactivity and intense action. Even though he is happy to help the police catch criminals when a case interests him, Holmes is more concerned with the pleasure he derives from these mental games. As he tells Watson,”My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”
This police officer eagerly accepts Holmes’s help in catching John Clay, whom Jones has been unsuccessfully trying to capture for years. Holmes describes Jones as unintelligent and unskilled in his profession, but he does praise the officer’s bravery and persistence.
The director of the City and Suburban Bank, Merryweather is portrayed as solemn and respectable. He also shows that he is overconfident and has a one-track mind when he seems more concerned about missing his weekly card game than about the possibility that his bank vaults are in danger.
See Duncan Ross
When John Clay refers to his red-headed accomplice as Archie in the bank vault, we learn the real name of the manager who supervises Jabez Wilson’s employment with the Red-Headed League. He plays the role of businessman well, even convincing the accountant from whom he borrows the office that he is a lawyer.
See John Clay
Dr. John Watson
Watson’s admiration for his friend Holmes prompts him to chronicle their many adventures together, such as this one. A medical doctor and married man, Watson is willing to drop his own pursuits to follow his friend at a moment’s notice. His devotion and trust lead him to accompany Holmes to Wilson’s pawnbroking shop and the bank vault, even though he does not understand his friend’s motive. Because Watson asks the questions that allow Holmes to reveal his knowledge and his reasoning, Watson serves as a stand-in for the reader. Watson confesses himself “oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes,” but he is a careful observer of people and events.
A red-haired widower and pawnbroker, Wilson seeks out Sherlock Holmes to solve one mystery, only to find out that he is being used as part of an elaborate scheme to rob a bank. Holmes reads clues in Wilson’s appearance that reveal his earlier seafaring profession and visit to China, but even Watson can discern Wilson’s mental slowness and mediocrity. Wilson’s overriding motivation is his love of money, which allows him to be manipulated by Clay and his accomplice.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.