(Short Stories for Students)

See Duncan Ross.

John Clay
Clay's apparent desire to learn the pawnbroking trade and his hobby of photography, like the assumed name of Spaulding, mask his intent to rob the City and Suburban Bank. Identified as a "murderer, thief, smasher, and forger," he is skilled enough at crime to have eluded the police for years. Holmes seems almost respectful when he identifies Clay as "the fourth smartest man in London" and compliments him on the ingenuity of his scheme. Clay's acid-splashed forehead and pierced ears hint at a colorful past, but the reader learns little about him aside from his royal blood, aristocratic education, and extreme pride. These attributes suggest that Clay was led to crime by the challenge, rather than the need for money. He may even have a Robin Hood-like motive of stealing from the rich to aid the poor, since police agent Jones mentions that Clay "will crack a crib in Scotland one week, and be raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the next."

Sherlock Holmes
Holmes's reputation as a lover of puzzles and solver of crimes leads people with particularly baffling problems, like the one confounding Jabez Wilson, to seek him out. Holmes possesses a nearly superhuman ability to read a person's background by observing small, seemingly-insignificant details, and Watson states that Holmes's powers of reasoning make him appear to be "a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals." Holmes is aided in his task by a thorough familiarity with previous criminal cases and the inhabitants of London's underworld, along with a scholarly knowledge of such obscure topics as varieties of cigarette ash and kinds of tattoo marks. Possessing a sort...

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As the story of bank robbers thwarted by a capable investigator, "The Red-Headed League" presents readers with a number of themes related to the classic contest between good and evil. The opposition between detective and criminal tests the warring values each side represents. With the detective's victory, the beliefs and qualities he embodies are confirmed as superior.

As the tale begins, it is Sherlock Holmes' love of mental puzzles that leads to his interest in the odd story Jabez Wilson tells him. His knowledge of crime and ability to reason allow him to discern that a serious motive must lie behind Wilson's singular experience with the bizarre Red-Headed League. Guided by this knowledge, and the observations he makes as a result, he stops a bank robbery and the further lawless career of a master criminal. Through Jabez Wilson, whom Holmes disdains as "not over-bright," we learn that ignorance—especially when it is accompanied by greed— can make people unwitting accomplices to crime.

A keen intellect is not always a force for good, however. Only a brilliant mind like John Clay's could pinpoint Wilson as the ideal target and conceive of the Red-Headed League as the perfect scheme to divert Wilson's attention from his business while a tunnel is being dug in his cellar. This is where the motives and morality guiding the actions of an intelligent mind become important, and where the key differences between the detective and criminal emerge.

The bank robber John Clay and his accomplice Archie are motivated by the fabulous sum of money they hope to steal from the City and Suburban Bank. Their greed takes them outside the bounds of law and leads to their capture. Even though the story ends before their trial and punishment, the likely penalty for their history of criminal acts would be execution, demonstrating the fatal consequences of greed. Jabez Wilson's love of money also promotes crime and makes him an easy target for exploitation. Not only does the promise of money in return for very little work take him away from his shop so John Clay will have free rein, he first becomes vulnerable when he hires Clay as his assistant, thinking he is getting the better bargain because Clay was "willing to come for half wages so as to learn the business." Sherlock Holmes, by contrast, personifies the virtue of unselfishness. After foiling the attempted bank robbery, he tells the manager Mr. Merryweather that he expects no reward beyond the repayment of his expenses. In addition, by helping good to triumph over evil, Sherlock Holmes eliminates the threat to his community's stability. Even though Holmes works with the police, and his investigation serves the interests of law and...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)