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.

In glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace; for working as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic.

The opening of the story is promising. Although this is the eighth Sherlock Holmes short story, and the tenth text, appearing in the Strand Magazine in February 1892, when the great detective’s adventures had only been published in that periodical for slightly over six months, Dr. Watson assures the reader that it has been selected from a much larger body of work which he has amassed over eight years. He also emphasizes the diverse range of the cases in which Holmes was engaged and says that all of them presented features of interest, since Holmes never took cases merely for money. Since the crime was motivated by avarice, the opening also serves to introduce one of the major themes immediately, stressing the moral difference between the detective and the criminal.

“You have done wisely,” said my friend. “But have you told me all?”

“Yes, all.”

“Miss Stoner, you have not. You are screening your stepfather.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

For answer, Holmes pushed back the frill of black lace which fringed the hand that lay upon our visitor’s knee. Five little livid spots, the marks of four fingers and a thumb, were printed upon the white wrist.

“You have been cruelly used,” said Holmes.

In this passage, Sherlock Holmes’s characteristic keen powers of observation and deduction are matched with an uncharacteristic sympathy. The revelation that Dr. Roylott is physically violent as well as being emotionally abusive in his treatment of his stepdaughter contributes to the characterization of Holmes as a chivalrous moral avenger but also to the way in which the reader perceives the pride, dignity, and secret suffering of Helen Stoner. Finally, the incident prepares the reader for the brutality of Roylott himself, who is a gentleman by birth but not by conduct. The fact that he is prepared to use his formidable strength against a young woman marks him out as an irredeemable villain.

“You are Holmes the meddler.”

My friend smiled.

“Holmes the busybody!”

His smile broadened.

“Holmes the Scotland Yard jack-in-office.”

Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught.”

Dr. Grimesby Roylott is accustomed to intimidating everyone he meets and cultivates a ferocious demeanor. He is therefore more infuriated by Holmes’s urbane dismissiveness than he could have been by any corresponding display of aggression. It is also noticeable that Roylott’s insults are rather feeble. He calls Holmes a meddler and a busybody, when in fact clients come to Holmes to persuade him to look into their affairs, and as Watson has already revealed, he does not always agree. He then calls him a “Scotland Yard jack-in-office,” the only phrase that seems to irritate Holmes, though he does not comment on it until after Roylott’s departure. The reason he dislikes the phrase, however, is that it is entirely inaccurate. Holmes has no connection with the police detectives of Scotland Yard and is inclined to look down on them as his intellectual inferiors.

“I had,” said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion, which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data. The presence of the gipsies, and the use of the word ‘band,’ which was used by the poor girl, no doubt, to explain the appearance which she had caught a horrid glimpse of by the light of her march, were sufficient to put me upon an entirely wrong scent.”

This is a rare admission of fallibility from Holmes, though it is characteristic of him that he adopts a didactic tone when explaining his mistake to Watson. The one substantial red herring that Conan Doyle has thrown in the path of the reader, in the midst of a host of genuine clues, is the idea that the “gipsies” (Romani people) may have been involved in the murder plot. However, the author also has Holmes follow this line of reasoning initially, showing how attractive it is. The point that one cannot build a theory without sufficient data is central to Holmes’s scientific method of investigation.

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