illustration of Sherlock Holmes in profile looking across a cityscape with a magnifying glass in the distance and a speckled band visible through the glass

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always considered “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to be one of his finest stories. In an article published in the Strand Magazine in 1927, more than thirty-five years after “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” appeared in the same periodical, he rated it the best of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and said that he was sure it would be on everyone else’s list of favorites as well.

There are several reasons why this particular story has generally been rated one of Conan Doyle’s best. Its cast of characters is pared down to a bare minimum of four: apart from Holmes and Watson there is only the client and the murderer. It cannot, therefore be called a “whodunnit” (a term that was coined long after “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was published), but rather a “how-did-he-do-it,” and the method by which Dr. Roylott has committed one murder and is attempting another is singularly ingenious. Nonetheless, Conan Doyle plays fair with the reader by dropping enough clues to enable them to reach the solution before Holmes reveals it. The whistle and the metallic clanging are vague enough, and the words “the speckled band” are positively misleading. Even Holmes himself initially misunderstands the reference to a band, thinking that it applies to the band of “gipsies” (Romani people). However, the dummy bell-rope, the ventilator which communicates with the next room, the bed bolted to the floor, the safe, the saucer of milk, and the dog-lash taken together constitute a more generous assortment of clues than the writers of detective stories generally provide. Not only are the clues distributed through the narrative on a liberal scale, but Holmes actually points out the significance of the bell-rope and the ventilator at some length. Watson remarks that “a rat could hardly pass through” the ventilator, leading inquiring minds to wonder what type of creature would be able to do so.

The cast of characters, though small, is memorable. Helen Stoner is an appealing heroine: distressed and abused, yet courageous, and admirably clear in her account of the background. She impresses Holmes as well as the reader. The dignified way in which she refuses to accuse Dr. Roylott of mistreating her personally, though she provides ample evidence of his violence and foul temper when she considers it relevant to the case, provides a particular touch of pathos. Dr. Roylott himself is one of Conan Doyle’s most successful villains: morally contemptible yet physically and mentally formidable, an altogether terrifying figure. The fact that Holmes refuses to be intimidated, and treats the doctor’s threats and insults with cool contempt, is particularly satisfying in light of this.

When Roylott shows his strength by bending the poker out of shape, Holmes straightens it out again. This shows that he is more than a match for the doctor, since it takes greater strength to straighten a bent piece of metal than it does to bend a straight one. The incident also has an important symbolic value. Roylott uses his powers to cause chaos and injustice, to bend things out of shape. Holmes employs his superior abilities to restore order, to straighten matters out again.

Aside from the ingenious plot and dramatic characters, the setting of the story is a satisfying one for devotees of gothic horror: a crumbling, ancient house in a lonely location, where wild animals and a sinister band of “gipsies” patrol the grounds. The narrative also highlights and develops the peculiar fraternal relationship between Holmes and Watson. This relationship was somewhat misrepresented in a series of film and television adaptations throughout the twentieth century, particularly those starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson (though it was, in fact, David Burke who played the part of Watson to Brett’s Holmes in the film of “The Speckled Band”). In these film versions, Watson was portrayed as a bumbling buffoon, whose ineptitude was a source of irritation to the efficient and emotionless Holmes.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” shows Watson initially rather annoyed with Holmes, whose irregular habits contrast with Watson’s own routine. Holmes has woken him up early in the morning, though he normally rises later than Watson. However, as soon as Watson realizes that Holmes has an interesting case underway, he is all eagerness. Holmes, for his part, does not even greet his new client until Watson is by his side. Toward the end of the story, Holmes says that he has some scruples about taking Watson with him to Stoke Moran, since the vigil on which they are to embark will be dangerous. Watson replies:

“Can I be of assistance.”

“Your presence might be invaluable.”

“Then I shall certainly come.”

Holmes’s dependence on Watson is just as striking as Watson’s courage and loyalty to his friend. It is this symbiosis that makes them such a perfect team.

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