Most Sherlock Holmes stories begin with Holmes and Watson interviewing a new client, and “The Red-Headed League” is no exception. In this story, Holmes and Watson speak to Jabez Wilson, who has had an interesting and rather disturbing experience, which he explains in detail.
The conversation between the three characters advances the story’s plot first by setting the stage for the mystery. It describes the case that Holmes must solve. Wilson, encouraged by his assistant, Vincent Spaulding, answered a newspaper advertisement seeking a redheaded man to work for the Red-Headed League. Wilson gets the position because of his bright red hair (or so he thinks), and he is set to work copying the encyclopedia from ten to two o’clock each business day. Wilson worked for eight weeks before finding a note on the office door one morning proclaiming that the Red-Headed League was dissolved. Holmes ends the interview by asking some questions about Wilson’s assistant. Wilson admits that he pays him only half wages and also describes Spaulding’s physical characteristics. The stage is set. The mystery is proposed. Holmes is on the case.
Yet the conversation has done more than merely set up a puzzle. It has also provided several important clues toward solving that puzzle. The times of Mr. Wilson’s work, for instance, as well as Spaulding’s characteristics and behavior, make a critical contribution to Holmes’s final solution, especially after he investigates further and brings to light more clues.
What’s more, Wilson’s tale sparks interest, both in Holmes and Watson and in readers. Its peculiarity pulls readers in and makes them want to find out what happens even as it strikes a chord in Holmes’s active mind and bewilders Watson. Further, since the mystery is presented in a conversation, it becomes personal. Readers relate to Wilson and feel sorry for him, and this, too, increases interest. The story would not be nearly as effective if the mystery had been merely narrated in the third person.