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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The style of the story is one that was to become customary in the Holmes adventures: Watson narrates the tale from his viewpoint as an on-the-spot observer. He provides Holmes (and Doyle) with the means to build suspense because, although Watson is present to see all of Holmes’s actions, he does not understand their significance. Thus, the unlocking of the mystery is postponed until the end.

The technique of building suspense by holding off the explanation is usually employed several times in a typical Sherlock Holmes story, and this one is no exception: First, there is the small demonstration of Holmes’s ability when Wilson first enters the Baker Street flat and Holmes deduces many facts about him from his appearance. The postponement is only momentary in this prelude, so to call it, because Holmes explains the inferences he draws from watch chains and calluses and the like. Nevertheless, the technique has been used to show Holmes’s powers, and his revelation at the end of the story of a greater chain of inferences has been prepared for by the less important scene at the beginning.

“The Red-Headed League” was a story of which Doyle himself was proud: At the conclusion of a contest held by Strand magazine, asking readers to pick their favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle contributed a list of his own, on which “The Red-Headed League” ranked second only to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”; Doyle rated it so high, he said, because of the originality of the plot. It is hard to argue with that view. The trick to remove Wilson from the scene of the crime and Holmes’s equal cleverness in preventing the crime continue to make the story memorable.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Turn-of-the-Century Readers
The detective stories Doyle published in the Strand magazine during the 1890s, including "The Red-Headed League," are credited with doubling subscribers to the magazine. During the Victorian Age, which stretched from the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837 to her death in 1901, major writers such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy often published novels serially, in weekly or monthly parts. Doyle, however, was the first to write short stories using a similar method, relying upon interest in a central character rather than an ongoing plot to keep readers coming back for more. The factors that led to this amazing popularity reveal the interests and make-up of the reading public in Doyle's day.

England increasingly became a nation of readers in the decades before Sherlock Holmes first appeared, since the Education Act of 1870 and legislation to limit child labor made it possible for a wider segment of the population to attend school. In 1880, all children were guaranteed schooling through the age of ten. Since recreational reading among this newly literate class was often done in short spans of time—while riding the train or subway, for instance—forms of writing flourished that could be quickly consumed, like articles or short stories in newspapers and magazines. Similarly, true or fictional accounts of action, adventure, and crime captivated the attention of lower- and middle-class readers who worked hard for a living and whose lives often contained little of the excitement they sought in literature. Doyle wrote for such readers, often reinforcing through his stories beliefs that his readers would be likely to hold.

The Police
Even though a British police force had been established in 1829, the institution was not held in universal high esteem. Early police had often been seen as paid spies, and cases of bribery, corruption, and incompetence made the public skeptical of police honesty and expertise. Due in part to low wages, the police were often drawn from the lowest ranks of society, leading many people who considered themselves socially superior to question their authority and skill. Doyle's portrayal of police agent Jones and Holmes's attitude toward him repeat these stereotypes. In other Sherlock Holmes stories, too,...

(The entire section is 4,170 words.)