Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rise unusually early one morning to meet Helen Stoner, a young woman who fears that her life is being threatened by her stepfather, Sir Grimesby Roylott, a doctor who practiced in India and who was married to Helen’s mother there. Helen’s sister has died almost two years earlier, shortly before she was to be married. Helen had heard her sister’s dying words, “The speckled band!” but had been unable to understand their meaning. Now Helen, too, is engaged, and she has begun to hear strange noises and to observe strange activities around Stoke Moran, the estate where she and her stepfather live.
Sir Grimesby Roylott does keep strange company at the estate. He befriends a band of Gypsies on the property and keeps as pets a cheetah and a baboon. For some time, he has been making modifications to the house: Before Helen’s sister’s death, he had modifications made inside the house, and now he is having the outside wall repaired, forcing Helen to move into the room where her sister died.
Holmes listens carefully to Helen’s story and agrees to take the case. He plans a visit to the manor later in the day. Before he can leave, however, he is visited by Roylott, who threatens him should he interfere. Undaunted, Holmes proceeds, first to the courthouse, where he examines Helen’s mother’s will, and then to the countryside.
At Stoke Moran, Holmes inspects the premises carefully inside and out. Among the strange features that he discovers are a bed anchored to the floor, a bell cord that does not work, and a ventilator hole between Helen’s room and that of Roylott.
Holmes and Watson arrange to spend the night in Helen’s room. In darkness they wait; suddenly, a slight metallic noise and a dim light through the ventilator prompt Holmes to action. Quickly lighting a candle, he discovers on the bell cord the “speckled band”—a poisonous snake. He strikes the snake with a stick, driving it back through the ventilator; agitated, it attacks Roylott, who had been waiting for it to return after killing Helen. Holmes reveals to Watson that Roylott plotted to remove both daughters before they married because he would have lost most of the fortune he controlled when the daughters took with them the money left them by their mother.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is probably the most famous of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, not only because of its diabolical plot about a stepfather preventing his twin daughters from marrying and thereby diminishing his income from his deceased wife’s estate, but also because it so perfectly realizes the pattern of detection that became Holmes’s trademark. Watson opens the story with the information that he has been freed to tell this story by the premature death of the client, Helen Stoner.
Helen comes to Holmes and Watson in April, 1883, terrified that she may meet the same fate as her sister, who died mysteriously two years earlier. Encouraged and reassured by Holmes, she recounts the reasons for her fears. Because of repairs on the house, she has had to move into the bedroom used by her sister when she died and has heard a low whistle in the night, just as her sister did on several nights before her death. Her sister died soon after announcing her engagement to be married, and Helen is now also engaged to marry. Furthermore, the stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott of the Stoke Moran estate in Surrey, is well known as a violent and temperamental giant who brooks no interference with his will. Having married their mother in India, where his medical practice was successful until he murdered his Indian butler, he returned to England, where his wife died in a railway accident. He then retired with his young stepdaughters into virtual seclusion at Stoke Moran, where he gives some of his time to collecting exotic animals, such as a baboon and a cheetah, said to come from India, which he allows to roam free on his grounds. He also associates with bands of gypsies that he allows to camp on his grounds.
Summarized, these details about Roylott’s life seem rather silly, but they work fairly effectively to account for Holmes’s initial failure to discover how Helen’s sister died and, therefore, what threat Helen must fear. This body of detail allows Holmes to develop two theories to explain the death, though he claims to have at least seven. The incorrect theory assumes that Roylott, with his clear motive for preventing his daughters from marrying, employs the gypsies by somehow making it possible for them to enter the woman’s room at night and frighten her to death in some way. This theory would explain why there are no signs of violence on her body; why the police have...
(The entire section is 984 words.)