An Analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


In each of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes, an amateur detective of independent means, is consulted by a client who has heard of his remarkable deductive abilities. Most of his clients are of the same social class as Holmes himself. In “The Red-Headed League,” however, Holmes is consulted by a “tradesman”—a merchant or salesman of some kind, whom we later find out to be a somewhat unprosperous pawnbroker. Because he considers the pawnbroker common, Holmes treats Wilson with a sort of mock-respect, much the same way many adults treat precocious children. He invites Watson to listen to Wilson’s story and see what he can make of it.


Wilson explains that he has responded to a newspaper advertisement inviting only red-headed men to apply for a very exclusive and desirable job. The key is, they have to be truly red-headed —not auburn, and not strawberry-blonde—and their flaming red hair has to be natural, rather than dyed. The ad was pointed out to Wilson by his assistant, Spaulding, who tells him that the Red-Headed League is a very reputable association, and encourages Wilson to apply; he does, and passes the interview with flying colors. His new employer, Duncan Ross, informs him that the job involves nothing more than copying the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. But Wilson has to promise to come to work every day between the hours of ten and two— ‘neither sickness nor business’ will serve as an excuse to stay home. For this he will be paid four pounds a week, which we would consider very slight, but which would have been a very attractive pay for a tradesman in those days.


He goes to work faithfully for eight weeks, getting paid every Saturday. Then, when he reports to work at the beginning of the ninth week, he finds the office locked, and a sign on the door stating that the Red-Headed League has been dissolved. Wilson contacts the building’s landlord, only to discover that the room had been rented under an alias, and Duncan Ross’ forwarding address is specious as well. He has come to Sherlock Holmes to find out what happened.


Holmes sends both Wilson and Watson away so he can smoke his pipe and think; this is at least a “three-pipe problem.” When Watson returns, Holmes asks him whether he’s in the mood to go to a concert—by way of Mr. Wilson’s place of employment. At the pawnshop, Holmes examines the sidewalk in front of the building very closely, beats his cane upon it vigorously, then makes a point of speaking to Wilson’s assistant, Vincent Spaulding. On the way to the concert, Holmes remarks cryptically that Spaulding must be “the fourth smartest man in London,” and asks whether Watson observed the knees of Spaulding’s trousers.

All of this is intended to be puzzling, and it is. After the concert, Holmes elicits a promise from Watson to return to his apartment at ten; there he meets several of Holmes’ other friends, including an official from Scotland Yard and the director of a large London bank. Holmes takes the trio down a warren of narrow streets, through two sets of iron gates, and down a flight of steps into the cellar beneath the bank. There they wait. Before long, one of the pavement stones in the cellar starts to lift and Spaulding, together with the man who called himself Duncan Ross, lift themselves through the hole, where they are apprehended by the “good guys.”


The purpose of the Red-Headed League is thus revealed. It was all a ruse to get Jabez Wilson out of the pawnshop during the day so that Spaulding and Ross could tunnel from the pawnshop to the bank’s basement and thus steal a large store of French gold without being detected. Sherlock Holmes was able to confirm his suspicions by a thump on the pavement outside the pawnshop (it sounded hollow) and a glance at the knees of Spaulding’s trousers (they were dirty from digging). A little improbable—but a tantalizing mental exercise nonetheless.


This story is available in The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

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