The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Red-Headed League | Summary



One fall day Dr. Watson stops by Sherlock Holmes's house to say hello, and he finds Holmes deep in conversation with a red-headed London pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson. At Holmes's request Wilson begins explaining to Dr. Watson the strange series of events that spurred his visit.

Two months earlier, Wilson's assistant, Vincent Spaulding, alerted him to a strange advertisement in The Morning Chronicle newspaper. The ad claimed to be placed by an American organization called "the Red-Headed League," and it was offering to pay a red-headed London man £4 a week in exchange for doing a few hours of busy work each day. Spaulding, who worked competently for half the typical wages of his position, expressed excitement at the opportunity for Wilson. He asked, incredulously, if Wilson had "never heard of the League of the Red-headed men?" After further convincing by Spaulding, Wilson applied for the position in person the following Monday, accompanied by his assistant. The interview was run by a representative of the League named Duncan Ross. Ross pulled Wilson's red hair to make sure it was real, and then outlined the parameters of the position: Wilson was to copy out the Encyclopaedia Britannica by hand between the hours of ten and two o'clock, each day of the week. He could not leave the building for any reason between these hours, but if he complied he would be given the weekly allowance of £4. Given the seeming ease of the task, he immediately accepted the position and agreed to start the next day.

Despite his apprehension that the arrangement was too good to be true, his first day of "work" went exactly as promised, and he returned to the league office every workday for eight weeks. After the end of the eighth week, however, he arrived at work and found the door of his office locked and a note on the door declaring the league had been dissolved. Confused by the unexpected closure, Wilson tracked down the landlord of the building. He told Wilson the office's tenant was a solicitor named William Morris, not Duncan Ross, and he recently moved out. Wilson traveled to Morris's new office address (which Morris gave to the landlord), but it turned out to be the address for a prosthetics company that had never heard of Morris or Ross. Confounded by the strange series of events and worried he had been tricked, Wilson contacted Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes begins his investigation by asking Wilson about his assistant, Vincent Spaulding. He learns Wilson hired Spaulding from a pool of applicants because he was competent and considerably cheaper than the rest of the group. Holmes learns Spaulding is short, strong, around 30, and has pierced ears—a fact that particularly intrigues the investigator. Holmes takes a 50-minute smoke break—this is a "three pipe problem," he asserts—and then he and Watson take the underground (subway) to scope out the area around Wilson's pawnshop, Coburg Square. That afternoon they survey the area around the shop and then knock on the door. For seemingly unclear reasons, Holmes beats the ground around the house with a stick. A young man (presumably Spaulding) opens the door, and Holmes asks him for directions, noticing the worn-out knees of his trousers. Holmes makes a mental note of all of the businesses that surround Wilson's shop (including a bank), and then they attend a performance of Sarasate (a Spanish violinist) at a nearby church.

After the performance Holmes tells Watson, with some graveness, to meet him at Baker Street at ten o'clock that evening. In the meantime, Holmes says, he must further explore Coburg Square. When Watson arrives to Holmes's house he is joined by two other men, a Scotland Yard policeman named Peter Jones and a bank director named Mr. Merryweather. Jones explains they are closing in on an infamous criminal named John Clay, a "thief, smasher, and forger" who has eluded capture. The grandson of a Duke and an Oxford graduate, he has been involved in multiple high-profile scams over the years. The group of men travel to a street close to Coburg Square, and led by Merryweather travel through back alleys and stairs until they arrive at the pitch-black vault of the very bank Holmes had identified earlier in the day. There are a number of boxes and crates in the vault; Merryweather explains they are holding £30,000 in gold bullion loaned from the Bank of France. After closely examining the floor, Holmes warns that John Clay and his associates will be arriving shortly—after Wilson has gone to bed—and directs the men to hide in the dark. As predicted after a little more than an hour the floor of the vault opens and Clay (Vincent Spaulding) emerges. Holmes accosts him, complimenting the plotter for the creativity of the Red-Headed League as Jones puts him in handcuffs. Ever the snob, Clay insists the policeman defer to his high breeding and call him "sir."

Back at Baker Street later that night, Holmes explains to Watson how he deduced the plot. First, the idea of a "league" of red-headed men was so preposterous (and hilarious) it convinced him something sketchy must be afoot. Indeed, the fact that league "duties" would keep Wilson out of his shop each day, while his clever—and significantly underpaid—assistant is left in charge of the pawnshop convinced Holmes that Clay (Spaulding) must be involved. No doubt his photography "hobby" coupled with his frequent visits to Wilson's cellar under the guise of developing his pictures means he was doing something in the cellar. As well, the wear in the knees of Jones's pants suggested he had been spending a lot of time on the ground. Last, Holmes explains his pavement-beating was to figure out what direction Wilson's cellar led toward. It led toward the back—the direction of the bank. Clay had been building a secret tunnel while Wilson was at work. Because "the league" had just notified Wilson of its cancellation, Holmes knew he had to act quickly, lest Clay and his accomplice escape with the gold.


"The Red-Headed League" is an original mystery and one of the most well-known Sherlock Holmes stories. It includes the classic display of deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes is known for. For example, after spending very little time with Wilson, Holmes (accurately) observes Wilson "has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately." However, the absurd premise elevates the tale from mere mystery to highbrow comedy. "Duo of enterprising bank vault robbers setting up a fake society dedicated to honoring the world's redheaded men" isn't exactly a plot cliché.

What gives the ruse even more comic power is that the recipient of this honor is Jabez Wilson, a modest pawnbroker from a drab area of London. Watson observes—not without a measure of condescension—that Wilson "bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow." The only thing exceptional about Wilson was that he was a "blazing redhead," he adds. The spectacle of such a man being caught up in such a group brings Holmes and Watson nearly to tears with laughter. When Wilson shows them the note on his door informing him the league had been dissolved, Watson says, "Sherlock Holmes and I surveyed this curt announcement and the rueful face behind it, until the comical side of the affair so completely overtopped every other consideration that we both burst out into a roar of laughter."

The story touches on social class. Watson is a bit snooty in his description of Wilson, but the bank-vault robber, John Clay, is a fully unrepentant snob who feels superior even as he's being arrested for committing a crime. When the policeman, Jones, puts him in cuffs, Clay responds, "I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands ... Have the goodness, also, when you address me always to say 'sir' and 'please.'" The policeman plays along sarcastically, directing him to move along upstairs "where we can get a cab to carry Your Highness to the police station." The entire scene is merely a cherry on top of a story that's already preposterous enough.

The music scene offers a rare moment of contemplation in an otherwise straightforward and expertly plotted farce. During the Sarasate concert Holmes (who is a musician himself) seems transformed into another person. He is happily immersed in the music, even waving his fingers along with the violin. While he watches his friend, Watson thinks about human nature. He observes that Holmes's "languid, dreamy eyes" during the concert so starkly contrast "those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent." On occasion Holmes has a "poetic and contemplative" side, but Watson concludes his "extreme exactness" and faith in the power of deduction is Holmes's way of counterbalancing this more sensitive side. Watson's analysis suggests the debate between romanticism and realism. Violin-enthusiast Holmes—creative, passionate, "dreamy"—is romantic, while pipe-smoking Holmes, with his absolute embrace of reason, is a firm realist.

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