To understand the theme of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and to appreciate the levels on which the story operates, one must view it as representative of its genre, the detective story. Like all formula fiction, it is intended by its author to conform to the traditional requirements of that genre.
Formula fiction provides its readers a certain kind of satisfaction: Those familiar with the formula know what to expect, in a general sense, from any story that follows the pattern. In the case of detective fiction, readers may not know how a particular case will be resolved, but they are assured that certain common elements will be present in every such story, and that certain expectations will be raised and satisfied. Most readers seek out detective stories to satisfy their inquisitive nature: People like to have their intellectual faculties challenged. They like to attempt to solve the mystery before the hero does. This they do through careful reading and clever analysis of clues presented by the author, often through a narrator who is aware of the facts but not always able to make the proper deduction. Hence, the “meaning” of most detective stories is usually discoverable on the surface: The denouement gives the reader a sense of completeness, and rereadings simply provide better opportunities to discover carefully disguised clues that make the solution of a particular case more plausible. Readers are not usually challenged to think about larger issues, as they might be by stories dealing with more complex social or philosophical issues.
At the end of the tale, Holmes himself supplies the moral, observing that “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.” The events of the story support this claim, as Roylott dies by the agent he had planned to use against his stepdaughter. Although such an explicit conclusion might be out of place in other forms of literature, it is expected in detective fiction, especially in early examples of the genre.
This is not to say that the story itself is simplistic, or that Doyle is interested only in showing that “good will out.” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” explores a universal problem that transcends its genre: the tendency of individuals to jump to conclusions based on insufficient or misleading evidence. Even the great Sherlock Holmes is temporarily led to a wrong conclusion by evidence that suggests a solution that, in reality, is far from the truth. Not only can physical evidence be misunderstood—the sinister combination of the Gypsies, the cheetah, and the baboon in this story certainly provides a wonderful opportunity for such misguided reasoning—but also words themselves are subject to misinterpretation, with potentially deadly results. Only by examining every piece of the puzzle and carefully evaluating each item in relationship to all other clues and circumstances is Holmes able to solve the mystery and, in this case at least, save an innocent life. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” provides its readers with a vivid lesson in the importance of sound reasoning and careful, unprejudiced observation—something that is not simply the purview of detectives.