Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most celebrated crime and detective fiction authors who created the sharp-witted and extraordinarily intelligent Sherlock Holmes for his novels and short stories. The British author’s craft lies in penning down intriguing plots that allow the readers to put on their thinking hats and participate in the mystery-solving venture. “The Red-Headed League” is his short story first published in The Strand Magazine (1891) as an illustrated text. The narrative follows the unraveling of an out-of-the-box strategy designed for robbing a bank by a criminal master who dupes an innocent red-haired man and tricks him into believing in the existence of a league for red-haired men. The sheer illogicality of certain events couples with Holmes’ smartness to render a humoristic and pleasurable reading experience.
The Red-Headed League | Summary
Watson narrates an incident from last autumn when he intrudes on a conversation his friend Sherlock Holmes is having with an elderly stranger and Holmes is thankful to him for arriving at the right time. Then follows a long discussion on the cases the two have solved together and their philosophy towards life. The elderly man is Mr. Jabez Wilson who presents a strange and unique case to Holmes. Watson observes the client’s appearance to look for any clues but he turns out to be an ordinary British tradesman.
Holmes deduces other aspects of Wilson’s life that surprises and impresses the latter regarding the former’s skills. Watson reads an advertisement addressing all the redhead people to be entitled to a vacancy of obtaining €4 per week on a nominal basis, which is the case Wilson presents to them. The advertisement is brought in by Vincent, Wilson’s assistant at the pawn shop. When Wilson decides to apply for the vacancy, he is astonished to see too many men with all shades of red hair at Fleet Street. Surprisingly, the man in authority selects Wilson as the heir to the vacancy on the condition of working from ten to two as a part of his new duty (to copy Encyclopaedia Britannica) and Vincent would manage the shop in the meantime. But Wilson has second thoughts and to avoid getting caught in this hoax, he conducts an investigation of his own.
The sheer implausibility of the existence of such a fund and easy work messes Wilson’s mind but since everything turns out to be the way the advertisement states, he adopts the new role and regularly receives his pay according to the contract. But Mr. Duncan Ross (the authority figure who selects Wilson) gradually stops visiting Wilson to check on him. After eight weeks, the League which entitles Wilson to his other source of income also dissolves unannounced.
Wilson also spills how people in the building do not recognize the League or Mr. Ross which appears like a fantasy that Wilson has been living in for almost two months. The landlord of the building reveals that Ross is actually Mr. William Morris who “was a solicitor and was using my room as a temporary convenience until his new premises were ready. He moved out yesterday.” This information to turns out to be false and so Wilson comes right away to Holmes for advice on the matter. Holmes asks for a day or two to give his verdict and slips into his detective shoes to begin investigating with Watson. He suspects some danger in this venture and prepares his partner for the same.
In the end, Holmes reveals Vincent who is John Clay, the most wanted criminal to be the mastermind of this entire ploy who wished to execute his plan of robbing the bank which required the preparation of digging up a tunnel from the pawn shop to the bank, and to buy that time, he devises an ingenious plan of tricking Wilson into believing in the existence of a red-headed league to keep him away from the shop. The man pretending to be Ross is the criminal’s partner and the story culminates with Watson admiring Holmes’ beautiful and meticulous reasoning as the latter spills out his method of deducing the clues for this case.
The Red-Headed League | Analysis
Like most of Doyle’s stories, “The Red-Headed League” is set in 19th-century London and exposes the vices of the industrializing city and people’s growing obsession with material prosperity and monetary benefits. Humans have become enemies with one another in the rat race for survival in the bustling city of machines, smoke, and crimes. The first-person narrator i.e. Doctor Watson takes the readers along with him on the journey of solving the mystery behind the never heard before league for red-headed men. The readers also participate with the detectives in solving the case presented by Jabel Wilson through equal access to facts and clues, except for Holmes’ exceptional deductive skills and the consequent findings during his in-person investigation.
The story belongs to the detective genre of literature but whether it ideally fits into the category is a subject of debate due to the contesting nature of the crime. Typically, a crime is committed to set an investigation into action but in the story, the actual crime i.e. robbing the bank is not committed until the climax. Also, the accused suspect(s) towards whom all the fingers point throughout an investigation is/are missing. Jabel Wilson, the victim of the lie concerning the existence of the league rules out all suspicions about him right at the beginning. But yes, the keen observatory brilliance of the detective figure operates right from the beginning where Holmes and Watson too, to some extent, deduce the missing elements in Wilson’s story such as Vincent’s motive to work at low wages in the pawn shop, the real motive behind is descended to the cellar, the cellar’s connection through a tunnel to the bank and the grounds for the red-headed league.
According to Holmes, the most complex crimes are committed in the most ordinary circumstances, which is the case here. The red hair and thus the associated league is just a distraction for the main crime i.e. robbery to add an element of humor and uncommon in the narrative and the puzzle. It is the simplicity of fooling Wilson that allows Vincent/John to plan a robbery as the master crime and hence add a layer of complexity. A.C. Doyle’s ingenuity to formulate a plot that is illogical at the surface but comprehensible and logically reasoned out when dug deeper is commendable.
However, there is an inconsistency in the story that Holmes fanatics observe concerning the story concerning detective’s assertion about his previous scores with John Clay but the latter’s failure in recognising the former when they meet at the pawn shop. John as Vincent should have been alarmed by the visit but it finds no mention. This ambiguity disappoints us in the skills of John who Sherlock Holmes addresses as one of the most “daring criminals” in London but maintains our faith in the famous detective’s logical deducing of the facts as he unfolds the mystery behind the superficial red-headed league.
The Red-Headed League | Themes
Greed – Crime, and greed mostly go hand in hand because it is the rapacity of material wealth that drives one to commit an offense such as an attempted robbery in the story by Vincent Spaulding who is identified as John Clay in real by the police department and his accomplice pretending to be Duncan Ross, the pretending pensioner of the red-headed league. But sometimes, greed also compels one to commit acts of buffoonery like Jabel Wilson’s compliance and commitment to copying the encyclopedia for a €4 additional income. His temptation for money leads him to believe in the existence of a league never heard of before, specially designed for red-haired men. The story thus reflects on two kinds of greed, both centering on the acquisition of material prosperity.
Crime – As a story under the canon of detective fiction, the narrative deals with the crime of robbery which is planned but never executed successfully. It occupies the last few sections of the plot. Rather, the not-so-innocent crime of fooling a naive man forms the major plot of the story. Though duping a man is not a legally sanctioned crime, it is not an acceptable act in the ranks of humanity.
Appearance – Duping is also central to the story where Jabel Wilson, the victim of betrayal and the lie of the red-headed league is duped by his assistant Vincent Spaulding and his accomplice who pretends to be Duncan Ross. While the common man Wilson is unable to identify the evil men, Sherlock Holmes’ takes no time to suspect Vincent when described by Wilson and later meets him in person at the pawn shop. Appearances are often misleading which can fool a naive man like Wilson or a rational man like Watson too but not a clever detective like Holmes.
The Red-Headed League | Characters
Sherlock Holmes – The famous London-based detective who harbors a “love…[for] all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.” He is a keen observer and untypical in his quest to solve any assigned mystery. With his logical reasoning and precise deduction, he solves some of the most unique cases, such as the one in the story which falls out of the boundaries of rationality. He resides in Baker Street where his companion Dr. Watson frequently has his abode as well.
Doctor Watson – Formally known as Dr. John H. Watson, he is a close friend and companion to Sherlock Holmes in all his criminal investigations. Serving as the narrator of this story, he stands at equivalence to the readers in having access to all the information pertaining to the case. He too is a key observer but couldn’t match Holmes’ eye to detect the unseen. As a medical practitioner, he is a man of science and a rational man who is aware of his limitations in skills when compared to his friend.
Mr. Jabez Wilson – The victim in the story, he is a widower who runs a pawn shop and is tricked by his assistant Vincent into signing up for a league designed for red-haired men due to his temptation for extra passive income. He is “an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow… [with] nothing remarkable” except his red hair. He is naïve enough to not suspect his assistant who readily works at his shop for half the market-determined wages and also to agree with the futility of copying down the words from an encyclopedia as a part of his new duties. But he is smart enough to sense the fishiness in the operations of the league when it dissolves unexpectedly and takes the matter to Sherlock Holmes.
Vincent Spaulding/John Clay – He is the assistant who works at Wilson’s pawn shop and is working at half wages only to learn the business. But he turns out to be the most wanted criminal John Clay who plans a bank robbery under the guise of working for Wilson to buy some time to execute his strategy. According to Holmes, he is the fourth intelligent man in London and also has some past settlements with the detective himself.
Duncan Ross – He is John Clay’s partner in crime and an imposter who under this name selects Wilson for the red-headed league fund. He is a mere pawn who facilitates the digging up of the tunnel by keeping Wilson busy and away from the shop.
Peter Jones – He is the police agent of Scotland Yard who has been in search of John Clay for quite a time and with the help of Sherlock Holmes, is finally able to arrest him red-handed.
Mr.Merryweather – He is the director of the bank which John Clay and his accomplice were going to rob.
The Red-Headed League | Literary Devices
“Never was such a fellow for photography. Snapping away with a camera when he ought to be improving his mind, and then diving down into the cellar like a rabbit into its hole to develop his pictures.”
“Pope’s Court looked like a coster’s orange barrow”
Holmes “ curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.”
When Vincent’s half wages and his passion for photography which often drives him to the cellar are disclosed to Sherlock Holmes by Wilson, we receive a subtle hint about his involvement in the entire facade of the league.
Red Hair– In the story, it symbolizes uniqueness or the unusual which the plot also ascribes to. Also, red is the color of passion which Wilson exhibits at his best when diligently copying from the encyclopedia. He fulfills his responsibility as the new heir of the fund with full obedience and sincerity.
Tunnel/Cellar– The deep dark recesses signify the mystery-oriented genre of the story and how one ‘digs in’ to discover the truth.
When Wilson describes his assistant Vincent Spraulding as an innocent man without any “vice,” it is a moment of dramatic irony because the readers are able to suspect his involvement in the mystery but Wilson isn’t.