"The Red-Headed League" is one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories because it is based on such an unusual idea. The criminal John Clay invents a job for Jabez Wilson to keep him out of the way while he is digging his tunnel into a bank's underground strongroom. The job can only be filled by a man who has exceptionally brilliant red hair--and it just happens that Wilson does have such hair. The scene in which hundreds of red-haired men apply for the fake job at the rented office is weird but just barely believable. In my opinion, the story is more interesting because of its characters and the adventure aspect than for the deductions of Sherlock Holmes and the solution to the mystery. Sherlock Holmes already knows John Clay and can guess that Wilson's problems with the Red-Headed League derive from Clay's desire to get Wilson out of the way. Sherlock Holmes tells Watson:
“You see, Watson,” he explained in the early hours of the morning as we sat over a glass of whisky and soda in Baker Street, “it was perfectly obvious from the first that the only possible object of this rather fantastic business of the advertisement of the League, and the copying of the Encyclopaedia, must be to get this not over-bright pawnbroker out of the way for a number of hours every day."
That much is "perfectly obvious, but there are a number of things about the story that are not explained. For instance, why didn't the crooks wait just a little whlle longer before posting a notice on the office-door that the Red-Headed League had been dissolved? Jabez Wilson finds the notice on Saturday when he comes to work, and John Clay is apprehended that very night. It was because Clay and his accomplice dissolved the League that morning that they got caught. There was no need to post such a notice at all. They could have just left four sovereigns in the office for that week's wages and never gone back to the office.
The two robbers had to drag thirty-thousand gold coins through a tunnel that must have been almost a block long. They intended to transfer the French gold coins into bags. Thirty-thousand one-ounce gold coins would weight 1,875 pounds. Each bag would probably have weighed a hundred pounds. Then they would have have all the gold in Wilson's cellar after four or five hours of hard work. How did they plan to get the gold up the stairs into a horse-drawn wagon without waking Wilson or running into a policeman? This problem is never mentioned, much less explained.
It is interesting to note how Conan Doyle keeps his detective in the forefront in his stories. Although Holmes brings a policemen with him, it is Holmes who captures John Clay.
Sherlock Holmes had sprung out and seized the intruder by the collar. The other dived down the hole, and I heard the sound of rending cloth as Jones clutched at his skirts. The light flashed upon the barrel of a revolver, but Holmes' hunting crop came down on the man's wrist, and the pistol clinked upon the stone floor.
“It's no use, John Clay,” said Holmes blandly. “You have no chance at all.”
The story is more interesting for its unusual features--the characters of John Clay and Jabez Wilson, the unusual plot involving the Red-Headed League--than for the detection involved. It seems that any intelligent person would deduce that the Red-Headed League had been created because of Wilson's red hair and was intended to get him out of the way. The story is a good example of how a talented fiction writer like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will create a character to suit the needs of his plot. In addition to being "not over-bright," Wilson has been out of the country for many years and therefore it is plausible that he might never have had heard of the creation of the Red-Headed League, if it has ever indeed existed.
It seems a little weak that Wilson would come to Sherlock Holmes and expect the famous detective to work for him for nothing, when Wilson has not really lost anything but has actually gained thirty-four pounds, less the cost of the paper he used to copy from the Encyclopedia Britannica. He does not have any hope of getting his job back. All he can say is:
“No, sir. But I want to find out about them, and who they are, and what their object was in playing this prank—if it was a prank—upon me. It was a pretty expensive joke for them, for it cost them two and thirty pounds.”