I think ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892) is perhaps the most fun Arthur Conan Doyle ever had writing about his most famous creation.
But wait, I get ahead of myself. This week, it’s…
‘The Speckled Band’ (1892)
Early one morning, Miss Helen Stoner — the last of a once-prosperous family and living with her aggressive stepfather Dr. Grimesby Roylott in a decrepit old house whose grounds are stalked by a baboon and a cheetah brought back from Roylott’s travels — calls upon Sherlock Holmes in fear of her life. Two years ago, her sister Julia perished in mysterious circumstances in her locked bedroom one night, able only to gasp out the words “Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” before dying. Now, Roylott has seen to it that Helen is sleeping in that same room, and a mysterious whistling in the night has made her fear that a death from the same source awaits her. Can Holmes untangle the skein before she, too, is killed?
Helen Stoner, spinster of this parish; about to marry.
Dr. Grimesby Roylott, step-father of the above; pokers beware.
Julia Stoner, deceased; never seen a snake before.
We are — sweet merciful Heaven — given a date for this, the story taking place over one day in early April 1893, and thus making this a prequel to the majority of Holmes’ cases to date. There is, as ever, absolutely no need for this, but I’m convinced Doyle is just laughing up his sleeve at us now, and that these obscuring and juggling of dates is just the guy throwing out anything and knowing that idiots like me will be poring over this sort of thing for years trying to figure out what was going on and why.
We get one piece of simple deduction Holmes’ assertion that in Helen Stoner must have risen early and travelled in a dog-cart, plus another reference to an unrecorded case (“I have heard of you from Mrs. Farintosh, whom you helped in the hour of her sore need…”). This case involving an opal tiara being “before your time, Watson,” who knows how many authors have tried to write it up?
Points of Interest
I mean, where to start?
Others far more learned than I have pointed out the myriad flaws in this story, not least the problems with the snake itself — swamp adders don’t exist, snakes don’t drink milk and cannot be summoned by a whistle. In his wonderfully comprehensive New Annotates Sherlock Holmes (2005) Leslie S. Klinger lists eleven possibilities for the snake under consideration, but comes up blank with any definite candidate.
How completely Doylean, too, that a baboon and cheetah be mentioned and then prove to not even be Chekov’s Gun; this is why I think he’s just having fun here, throwing in bizarre features purely for the establishment of mood and then discarding them with equally joyous abandon. He’s drunk with the power of knowing how much of a sensation these stories have caused, and is indulging his wildest flights just to see what he can get away with.
It’s not, though cheaply written. Say what you like about Doyle’s plotting and attention to details, his prose remains gripping:
At the moment when Holmes struck the light I heard a low, clear whistle, but the sudden glare flashing into my weary eyes made it impossible for me to tell what it was at which my friend lashed so savagely. I could, however, see that his face was deadly pale and filled with horror and loathing. He had ceased to strike and was gazing up at the ventilator when suddenly there broke from the silence of the night the most horrible cry to which I have ever listened. It swelled up louder and louder, a hoarse yell of pain and fear and anger all mingled in the one dreadful shriek. They say that away down in the village, and even in the distant parsonage, that cry raised the sleepers from their beds. It struck cold to our hearts, and I stood gazing at Holmes, and he at me, until the last echoes of it had died away into the silence from which it rose.
That said, “It seems that a young lady has arrived in a considerable state of excitement, who insists upon seeing me” might just be the most horrendously ungrammatical sentence written in the Victorian era.
And surely, if you were dying and wanted to communicate the slithery thing you saw slithering towards and/or away from you, you’d gasp out “snake” first and “speckled band” would be about your twentieth choice of expression.
I have previously written about this story here. It’s a good job I reread that post before writing this one, because I nearly went on to say many of the same things here. Weird that I’ve listed it as ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ there, though, when my Penguin edition gives it the title used for this post. I know the ‘The Adventure of…’ prefix became popular for a while with Doyle, but it’s presumably been retrospectively added to later editions of this collection. Is there a definitive original title?
And does anyone know anything about the play of this that Doyle apparently wrote in the early 20th century? Seems an odd one to adapt, given how most of the key scenes take place in darkness…
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]:
- ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
- ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
- ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
- ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)
- ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891)
- ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)
- ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892)
- ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892)
- ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ (1892)
11 thoughts on “#1066: Little Fictions – ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”
A classic for a reason. I still remember the build up of fear as I read it for the first time, and that was a long time ago.
My explanation for why she’d say “the speckled band” is 1) Conan Doyle would sacrifice realism for a good story at any opportunity and 2) a lot is made of how dark the room is, so maybe she couldn’t see the snake very well? Or maybe was so confused due to tiredness that she couldn’t identify it?
I’d accept tiredness if there was anything other than a snake which moved like a snake….but human aversion to them is so deeply ingrained that I can think o no reason beyond Doyle’s mystery-making for the sister not to have screamed out “Snaaaaake!!” the instant she was discovered.
But, yes, realism be hanged; we want a good time and we get that here.
I still recall reading of Homes and Watson’s approach to the house when I was 13 or so, and being so tense that I could hardly read the words. I particularly remember worrying over the fact that the bed was bolted in position in the relevant bedroom; for some reason this detail particularly horrified me with its implications of an inexorable, murderous intent. I have this same feeling any time I read a good locked room mystery (as with the Red Widow Murders, recently), but that immovable bed is definitively the original for me, and will sometime recall itself to me in the middle of reading otherwise unrelated works.
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Unusual Beds in Victorian Crime Fiction might make an interesting subset, since there’s ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ by Wilkie Collins and ‘The Adventure of the Circular Chamber’ by Eustace and Meade to add to this fixed-in-place example — and both of those creeped me out, if only because bed is supposed to be a place of safety.
I thoroughly am enjoying your re-reading of Holmes. This was the first Doyle/Holmes I read as a child and TSB started my love for the fictional detective. I can remember the time and place where I read this so many years ago, including the awe I felt as the story took place as well as my surprise at the denouement. Despite the flaws in the plot that my adult mind now see, I still like this one through multiple re-reads.
Whilst I am attracted to detective fiction first and foremost for the puzzles, the best books for me are the ones where I remember not just the plot … but how it made me feel reading it. This is one of those.
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I’m enjoying meeting some — most — of them again after 20-plus years, especially when they turn out to be as enjoyable as ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ and as clearly utterly bonkers as this one.
I, too, remember the setting of this quite vividly — it never really leaves you, does it, despite nothing being done with that baboon and cougar?
It’s a shame that the snake is a venomous one rather than a constrictor because, if strangulation were the cause of death, he could have engaged in some misdirection using a famous prior, impossible murder…
As for the title, the Strand publication, which I’m pretty sure was the original, uses the “The adventure of…” title.
Interesting; I wonder wen, any why, the titles ended up getting shortened, then.
Mike Grost suggested that Doyle had been inspired by the Australian detective stories of James Skipp Borlase and Mary Fortune, and noted similarities between “The Speckled Band” and “Mystery and Murder” (1866), attributed to Borlase but possibly written by Fortune. In both stories (i) the client visits the detective and describes a series of mysterious and threatening visitations to their bedroom at night; (ii) the detective returns with the client to their house in the country and spends the night in their bedroom; (iii) the detective experiences the same visitation and solves the mystery. These similarities are hardly dispositive, but some of the dialogue is Sherlockian in character:
If this was the inspiration, it shows, I think, Doyle’s genius in making Watson the narrator. The author of “Murder and Mystery” is somewhat hamstrung by the first-person narrative of the detective, who has to supply both the emotional response to the mystery and the rational deductions.