Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The style of the story is one that was to become customary in the Holmes adventures: Watson narrates the tale from his viewpoint as an on-the-spot observer. He provides Holmes (and Doyle) with the means to build suspense because, although Watson is present to see all of Holmes’s actions, he does not understand their significance. Thus, the unlocking of the mystery is postponed until the end.
The technique of building suspense by holding off the explanation is usually employed several times in a typical Sherlock Holmes story, and this one is no exception: First, there is the small demonstration of Holmes’s ability when Wilson first enters the Baker Street flat and Holmes deduces many facts about him from his appearance. The postponement is only momentary in this prelude, so to call it, because Holmes explains the inferences he draws from watch chains and calluses and the like. Nevertheless, the technique has been used to show Holmes’s powers, and his revelation at the end of the story of a greater chain of inferences has been prepared for by the less important scene at the beginning.
“The Red-Headed League” was a story of which Doyle himself was proud: At the conclusion of a contest held by Strand magazine, asking readers to pick their favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle contributed a list of his own, on which “The Red-Headed League” ranked second only to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”; Doyle rated it so high, he said, because of the originality of the plot. It is hard to argue with that view. The trick to remove Wilson from the scene of the crime and Holmes’s equal cleverness in preventing the crime continue to make the story memorable.