Download The Red-Headed League Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Detective fiction has often been categorized as pure entertainment. For this reason, much critical opinion of "The Red-Headed League" and Doyle's other Sherlock Holmes stories is influenced by a particular critic's viewpoint on the value of this literary niche. In recent decades, criticism has begun to shift toward a more serious consideration of these tales. Doyle's detective stories are seen as fascinating clues to the culture in which they were written and as explorations of the attitudes characteristic of late-Victorian life.

Most early book reviewers had favorable opinions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in which "The Red-Headed League" appeared. Typical is the judgment voiced by one anonymous critic in a British periodical, The Athenaeum, who said of the collection, "Of its kind it is excellent; there is little literary pretension about it, and there is hardly any waste of time about subtle character-drawing; but incident succeeds incident with the most business-like rapidity, and the unexpected always occurs with appropriate regularity." Another reviewer, William Morton Payne, singled out "The Red-Headed League" for particular note in an American journal, The Dial, remarking that the story "is a striking illustration of the author's originality." Years later, Doyle cited the same reason for ranking "The Red-Headed League" as his second favorite Holmes story (with "The Speckled Band" first). In 1959, a poll among readers of the Baker Street Journal, a magazine for Sherlock Holmes fans, concurred with Doyle.

The largest body of criticism on the Sherlock Holmes stories comes from groups of enthusiasts who call themselves "Sherlockians" or "Holmesians." In over 50 journals and newsletters published worldwide, the most prominent being the American Baker Street Journal and British Sherlock Holmes Journal, writers attempt to resolve inconsistencies in the stories or deduce aspects of Holmes's and Watson's lives from clues given in the stories. The central premise shared by these writers, from which much of the fun of their essays arises, is that Holmes was an actual person who solved real mysteries. As a result, writers on "The Red-Headed League" have produced wonderfully logical articles attempting to establish the true location of Saxe-Coburg Square, since no place by this name exists in London, or arguing that the Red-Headed League might really have existed.

Such articles must obviously be read from the same tongue-in-cheek perspective in which they were written. However, they often provide worthwhile information on the historical background of Doyle's stories and testify to the mystique Sherlock Holmes still holds today. One of the best examples of criticism in this "Sherlockian" vein is Gordon L. Iseminger's essay on Holmes as a Victorian archetype, since it demonstrates ways in which Holmes was a product of the culture from which he emerged.

A similar appreciative tone marks much critical writing on Doyle during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Writers occasionally disparage the form in which Doyle chose to write, but they nevertheless praise his clever plots. One exception was the poet T.S. Eliot, who enjoyed the character of Sherlock Holmes but complained, in a 1929 review of the complete collection of the Holmes stories, that the solution to "The Red-Headed League" was "perfectly obvious from the beginning." Critics then, as now, frequently marvel at the level of popularity Holmes had achieved and speculate on the reasons for this phenomenon.

More recent criticism has often focused on Doyle's life as an influence upon his detective stories. Links are often drawn between the characterization of Holmes and Doyle's own scientific interests and political convictions, including his patriotism, contradictory views on women's rights, and skepticism toward the British judicial system. By these critics' reasoning, Holmes becomes an extension of Doyle himself, perhaps even Doyle's vision of an ideal self. A central...

(The entire section is 996 words.)