Sherlock Holmes and "The Red-Headed League"

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Sherlock Holmes is one of the most legendary literary figures, not only among lovers of detective fiction. Stories of Holmes' adventures—and there are only 56 short stories and 4 novels—have been translated throughout the world and made into plays, films, and television programs. There are more than 50 magazines devoted to the discussion of Sherlock Holmes and countless societies formed by people to celebrate him. When Arthur Conan Doyle sold all rights to A Study in Scarlet in 1886 for a mere 25 pounds, he could not possibly have imagined what a star he, Holmes' assistant Dr. Watson, and the detective himself would become.

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Why is Sherlock Holmes so popular? Even his dedicated readers admit that his plots are sometimes rather thin and that the details do not always add up. For instance, "The Red-Headed League" has inspired several articles pointing out its inconsistencies; notes from a Sherlock Holmes' society meeting discussing the same matter have even been published. Yet enjoyment in the story has never abated. It seems that Doyle has succeeded at something far more important than fabricating complicated mysteries: he has recreated the world of London in the 1880s; he has supplied rich detail and compelling characters; most important, he has invented Sherlock Holmes, one of modern literature's most enduring characters.

"The Red-Headed League" is one of the earliest Holmes stories. It shows Holmes foiling a bank robbery attempted by a master criminal. The affair is brought to Holmes' attention by a pawnbroker, upset at having lost his job with a group called the Red-Headed League of copying the Encyclopedia Britannica. Holmes is rightly suspicious, and after doing a bit of investigating, figures out when and where a robbery will take place. He then arrives at the scene first, accompanied by an agent from Scotland Yard, to arrest the criminals.

Michael Atkinson sees in this story "a symbolic commentary on the nature of plot itself"; it shows the reader how the plot of the story can be used to get underneath the plot to show deeper connections between characters and action. This is highlighted by Holmes' movements and thoughts mirroring the physical action of the story. As Holmes physically moves from Baker Street to Saxe-Coburg Square to the concert hall and back to Baker Street again, his mental process proceeds from logical guess to confirmation, reflection, and finally, to the formulation of a plan. The aptly named John Clay is the anti-Holmes. His scarred forehead, symbolizing "reason disfigured," provides a contrast to Holmes, whose reason is straight and sure. Clay insists on his nobility while Holmes brushes aside any idea of nobility as playing a part in his foiling of the crime. The two men even react to their knowledge of each other in a similar fashion. When he recognizes the description of Clay, "Holmes sat up in his chair in considerable excitement" but then lapsed into his usual calm demeanor; Clay exclaims "Great Scott!" when he sees Holmes but then composes himself "with the utmost coolness." According to Atkinson, these correspondences serve to show "an abyss which is always in the neighborhood of a Holmes story, the chasm which separates thought from moral feeling here, the terrible gulf between the powers of reason and the health of the soul."

Other readers appoint themselves critics in enumerating the inconsistencies and the flawed logic of the plot. Vernon Goslin actually copied pages out of the Encyclopedia Britannica in order to make the discovery that "Wilson had just achieved the incredible feat of writing, with a quill pen, over one million words in longhand , in precisely 224 hours!" Other issues abound. Where did the criminals put the dirt they dug out of the ground to make the tunnel? If Wilson applied for the job in late April, "[j]ust two months ago," how could the...

(The entire section contains 6130 words.)

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