The Best of Sherlock Holmes Questions and Answers

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Best of Sherlock Holmes questions.

Why does Jabez Wilson not go down into his own cellar?

One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's many problems in plotting "The Red-Headed League" must have been with regard to Jabez Wilson's possible discovery of what was going on right under his feet in his own cellar. He tells Sherlock Holmes:

“Oh, he has his faults, too,” said Mr. Wilson. “Never was such a fellow for photography. Snapping away with a camera when he ought to be improving his mind, and then diving down into the cellar like a rabbit into its hole to develop his pictures."

John Clay, alias Vincent Spaulding, must have been working on his tunnel right under his employer's nose for quite some time before Clay came up with the idea of the Red-Headed League to get Wilson out of the way as well as to enable him to bring his partner in to help him dig. Doyle had to do something to keep the reader from asking himself the obvious question: "Why wouldn't Wilson go down into his cellar at least once out of curiosity?" If Spaulding is supposed to be a photographer, Wilson might at least want to see what his pictures looked like.

Doyle precludes this question by his characterization of Jabez Wilson. When Watson first sees him he describes him as follows:

I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced elderly gentleman with fiery red hair.

Wilson is overweight and elderly. He doesn't care to venture down a steep flight of dark wooden steps just to look at some amateur photographs. The fact that he is "florid-faced" strongly suggests that he suffers from high blood pressure, which could make the climb back up the steps not only difficult but dangerous. This would be one reason why Jabez Wilson might never want to venture down into his cellar. It was a lucky thing for him that he never tried to do so, because he would have seen a deep hole in his cellar wall and mounds of excavated dirt all over the floor—and Clay would have had no compunctions about killing the old man with a shovel and burying him in his own cellar.