#1027: Little Fictions – ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This week, one of the all-time classics.

I mean, c’mon. In an oeuvre that takes in some of the most famous and brilliant examples of the crime writer’s art, perhaps among the most brilliant things Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote was…

‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)

The Case

Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker by trade, has, for the last four weeks, spent four hours a day copying out the ‘A’ section of the Encyclopedia Britannica at the behest of the Red-Headed League, to whose number he was admitted on account of his fiery mane. For this seemingly purposeless endeavour he has been paid £4 (almost £400/$490 USD in today’s money) a week, and has only stopped because, arriving recently at the office where he worked, a note on the door informed him that “THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED”. Keen to continue such a profitable past-time, he consults Sherlock Holmes in the hope that some sense made be made of the endeavour.

The Characters

Jabez Wilson, pawnbroker; fire in the thatch.

Vincent Spaulding, pawnbroker’s assistant; smooth of face, pierced of ear.

Duncan Ross, puller of hair and legs; also known as William Morris.

Peter Jones, Scotland Yard; also known as John Lewis.

The Timeline

The dates here don’t add up. Wilson has been working for the League for some eight weeks — Holmes remarks that the undertaking has cost the organisation “two and thirty pounds” — when he discovers the notice of its disbandment dated 9th October 1890. We must assume, then, and allowing for a few days to pass for Wilson’s own investigations, that the events described herein occur between the beginning of August and the middle of October of that year. But Wilson saw the advertisement in the paper dated 27th April 1890…so either it was a very long wit to get to the front of the queue for prospective inductees or there’s been a slip up somewhere.

The Tropes

More casual deductions from observation — “Beyond the obvious facts that he 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, I can deduce nothing else.” — though you feel Doyle is perhaps starting to regret having to explain these away, because they really are rather simple, even if that is the point.

The setup is so unusual that even Holmes is forced to admit that it’s a “three-pipe problem”, which is one of my favourite turns of phrase in the entire canon.

Later authors would seem to struggle when establishing a detective’s capability with both brains and brawn, but Doyle does amazing work both here and in the following story ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891) in placing these seemingly contradictory elements of a man at peace with each other:

[W]hile his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive. In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often thought, the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him. The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions. Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals. When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.

And…well, that’s about it. Perhaps even Doyle recognised that the problem and its investigation and solution were so good that there was little need to cram in too much that was eye-catching or distracting. Though, of course, that requires him to be aware of just how far-reaching the impact of these stories would be, and it’s unlikely he could have known that. Right?

Points of Interest

If the cellar of a building was built so close to the surface that you could determine its presence just by banging on the street outside, surely there would have been multiple collapsing pavements in Victorian London. Was…was that a thing?

I always expect the details of Spaulding’s appearance — “no hair on his face, though he’s not short of thirty…a white splash of acid upon his forehead…his ears are pierced for earrings” — to have some bearing on the case and its solution, but it doesn’t. I can only suppose that it confirms observations Holmes has learned of this man elsewhere, but I’ve read this at least twice thinking “That’ll turn out to be a woman in disguise” and…nothing comes of it. Am I…am I missing something?

It’s interesting to reflect that we all have our versions of Holmes. Laurie R. King was so evidently struck by the unlikelihood of Holmes sitting “gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music” when distracting himself in the afternoon that she took the time in one of her Holmes-universe-expanding Mary Russell books — I think it might have been the first, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) — to attribute this action to Watson instead, suggesting that because he did it he wrote that Holmes did, too.

I appear to have very little to say about this, but I really do think it to be one of the finest crime short stories ever written. No amount of familiarity with its contents causes its lustre to dim in my mind. Doyle could have stopped writing here and I’d still be calling him a genius.


The Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on The Invisible Event

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
The Sign of Four (1890)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss]:

  1. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
  2. ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
  3. ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
  4. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

5 thoughts on “#1027: Little Fictions – ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. It’s a gloriously constructed story. A beautiful, quirky hook mixed with a striking client and a great explanation. Probably my favorite Holmes story and certainly the one I revisit most often.


    • I agree with you Aidan; The Adventure of The Red-Headed League is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story too. Definitely belongs up there on the list of most memorable stories in the canon. I remember the Jeremy Brett adaptation inserting Moriarty, a nice inclusion that made sense and aligns with his character.


  2. It is a brilliant early example of the “hidden scheme” plot, where a series of events that are on the face of it ridiculous or incomprehensible are explained by a complex criminal enterprise. However, there are a couple of weaknesses.

    First, the decision of the conspirators to shut down the Red-headed League before they have robbed the bank. Holmes says that “when they closed their League offices that was a sign that they cared no longer about Mr. Jabez Wilson’s presence—in other words, that they had completed their tunnel” but if they had kept it going for just one more day, then it would have been too late for Jabez Wilson to consult Holmes. In order to make sense of this, we have to suppose that the conspirators had run out of funds, having spent £32 on Wilson (equivalent to roughly £3,000 today), not to mention the rent of the office. But it would have improved the story for Holmes to point this out.

    Second, the profession of Jabez Wilson. He is a pawnbroker, a profession where you have to lay out sums of money based on the value of items brought to you by your customers. Pawnbrokers who don’t use their wits to look beyond surface appearances are going to find themselves ripped off by customers representing gilt as gold, or costume jewellery as true gemstones. So it feels wrong to me that Wilson is so trusting about what he is told by the conspirators. Nothing in the story depends on his being a pawnbroker, so he could as easily have belonged to some other profession not requiring so much astuteness.


  3. You noted the oddities with the timeline. This was investigated as thoroughly as one could wish by Dorothy L. Sayers (“The Dates in The Red-headed League“, collected in Unpopular Opinions, 1946). With tongue firmly in cheek, she explains not only “April 27th”, but the problem that 9th October 1890 was a Thursday, and the problem that Wilson says he worked for eight weeks, was paid £4 in arrears on Saturdays, and received £32, although he never received the last payment.


    • Yes, I imagine this has been pored over by everyone paying even the slightest attention; I was just amused because I was unaware of the error before rereading it. But trust Dot to go into it with the rigour it deserved 🙂


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