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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life. You have shown your relish for it by the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures.

In this remark, Holmes makes his characteristic criticism of Watson’s method of storytelling. Though his censure is mild, it is also misplaced from the reader’s point of view. There are only two stories in the entire Holmesian canon narrated by Holmes himself, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” These are markedly inferior precisely because Watson focuses on the dramatic details likely to interest the reader, whereas Holmes narrates in a cold, logical, and therefore rather dull manner. Added to this is the point that, as Holmes admits here, the facts in these cases often really are sensational and strange, and to deprive them of their human interest would be perverse. Watson does not “embellish” them so much as draw out the points that most appeal to his audience.

Sherlock Holmes’ quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

Watson has been attempting to perform Holmes’s characteristic trick of drawing inferences from small details of the client’s appearance. Holmes notices this and, in response, produces a particularly spectacular display of deduction, astonishing both Watson and the client, Mr. Jabez Wilson. However, Wilson’s amazement is short-lived, since, when Holmes explains how he deduced each of these five facts, he remarks complacently, “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.” Holmes responds ironically, saying that his reputation will be ruined if he continues to give away his secrets in this fashion. However, the structure of these initial episodes in which Holmes makes deductions about the client is an instructive illustration of the difference between his perspective and everyone else’s. To Holmes, logic is more impressive than magic. To the client, the reader, and even Watson, there is a kind of anti-climax when Holmes explains how the trick was done and reveals his powers as logical rather than magical. This is why Watson’s narration is so vital to the story, since he is intelligent and appreciates Holmes’s methods but shares the perspective of the reader.

“As far as you are personally concerned,” remarked Holmes, “I do not see that you have any grievance against this extraordinary league. On the contrary, you are, as I understand, richer by some £30, to say nothing of the minute knowledge which you have gained on every subject which comes under the letter A. You have lost nothing by them.”

Holmes makes the point that the affair he has been asked to investigate, although it is certainly a strange conundrum, does not at first appear to be a crime at all. Mr. Wilson, a solemn and self-important character, regards what has happened as a distasteful joke at his expense, but he has not been wronged or harmed by the Red-Headed League. This highlights one of the main qualities of the Holmes stories, particularly when they are contrasted with their successors in the twentieth century. Conan Doyle’s focus is on the ingenuity of the ideas, rather than on the shocking or violent nature of the incidents. Many of the stories, like this one, do not involve murder or violent crime.

All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive. In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often thought, the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him.

Watson remarks here (and in later stories) that Holmes has a split personality. For long stretches of time, he appears to be an idle, languid, poetic dreamer, then he will suddenly become interested in a puzzle, and this stimulus suddenly transforms him into a paragon of energy and industry. There is an echo of this dichotomy in the music to which he listens. Holmes has already expressed his preference for German music over French or Italian, remarking that it is introspective, and he wants to introspect. The German music of the nineteenth century, particularly that of Wagner, is known both for its intellectual rigor and its intense Romanticism, both of which qualities would appeal to Holmes as he is depicted in this story.

“You reasoned it out beautifully,” I exclaimed in unfeigned admiration. “It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true.”

“It saved me from ennui,” he answered, yawning. “Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”

Holmes makes his closing remarks on the case while drinking whisky and soda with Watson in Baker Street in the early hours of the morning. A particularly interesting and exciting case, in which Holmes has foiled one of the most prolific criminals in England, has only just ended, and already he finds himself becoming bored again. Watson and Holmes are close friends, and Holmes has great respect and affection for Watson, but, as this exchange illustrates, their minds work in quite different ways. Watson’s congratulations echo those of Mr. Merryweather, the commonplace and unintelligent bank director, a few paragraphs earlier, but Holmes is lost in a world of his own, in which he will be overwhelmed by the drabness of life until the next intriguing puzzle presents itself.

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