Arthur Conan Doyle wrote so many Sherlock Holmes stories, all of which can be found in collected editions, that it is hard to imagine a time when the character of the famous detective was new and fresh in the public imagination. Two novels featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), were published with only mild success. It was not until the publication of the first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in 1891, that the detective became immensely popular. It was to capitalize on this public demand that Doyle wrote “The Red-Headed League.”
The story is above all a vehicle to display the remarkable reasoning ability of Sherlock Holmes, a man who is able to impose order on a seemingly meaningless jumble of experience. Experience in the Holmes stories only seems, however, to be meaningless: For someone who, like the detective, observes closely and interprets correctly, the world is a book to be read.
In “The Red-Headed League,” the character of Holmes is the theme, and in the story Doyle continues to supply information about the background, tastes, and habits of his greatest creation. It is in this story that the reader learns that Holmes has a “poetic and contemplative” side to his nature, one that is illustrated when Holmes interrupts his detective work to attend a violin concert. One finds out as well that Holmes himself is a musician and a composer “of no ordinary merit.” Through the almost casual introduction of details such as these, Doyle created a character who escapes the bounds of fiction, becoming almost lifelike in his solidity.
A subsidiary theme may be present, too, represented in the adage “You can’t cheat an honest man.” Throughout the story, Doyle delicately hints at Wilson’s greed, the most telling example of which is his hiring of Vincent Spaulding because Spaulding agrees to work for half-pay. From that decision, all of Wilson’s troubles spring.