by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sherlock Holmes story I have read and enjoyed most of all, The Adventure of the Speckled Band is the finest of Conan Doyle’s mysteries. Taking a classic locked-room set up, the adventure adds a sense of urgency and horror only matched by perhaps by then novel-length The Hound of the Baskervilles in the Holmes canon.
Already a long-time fan of Holmes, I was thrilled when my class studied this story at school. Not only was I going to enjoy the project, but I also didn’t need to do the reading. Much like my introduction to The Great Gatsby and The Big Sleep, my favourite teacher Mr Dawson lead the class – giving him more bonus points in the thrilling (and unknown) race to become my junior mentor.
The Adventure of the Speckled Band begins with the arrival of Helen Stoner, who’s afraid her stepfather is trying to kill her. Several years ago, Helen’s sister died whilst locked inside her bedroom just days before her wedding after complaining of a night-time whistling. Now engaged too, Helen’s stepfather has moved her into the sister’s room and the whistle has begun again.
Visiting the family’s country home, Holmes and Watson find a menagerie of animals wandering the grounds and a gypsy encampment just outside the bedroom windows. It’s within the macabre room though that the detective finds the most slippery of clues.
First published in 1892, The Adventure of the Speckled Band was later collected as the eighth entry in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though there’s no well-known cinematic adaption, the Grenada series of 1984 and Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century both featured episodic interpretations.
The story benefits from the quality of both its villain and his ingenious plan to secure the inheritance left to his stepdaughters. Second only to Moriarty, Dr Grimesby Roylott is an imposing, intelligent and ruthless foe for Holmes. From his first introduction, where he bends a fireplace poker with his bare hands, we’re under no illusions that Roylott is dangerous and has already got away with one murder.
As with many Holmes stories, the mystery seems unsolvable at first and even second glance. The locked room scenario is a favourite of mine and there’s not a solution in literature equal to that seen here. Conan Doyle mixes enough red herrings to plant seeds in the reader’s while keeping us baffled until the last.
The Adventure of the Speckled Band saves its crowing moments for the end, as Holmes and Watson lie in wait for an unknown killer in the pitch black of Helen’s bedroom. You feel the danger in the air as the two men attempt to remain alert throughout the night and the terror grabs you when the whistle strains through the darkness.
At his best, Conan Doyle mixed cryptic mysteries with gothic horror – battles atop waterfalls, menacing hell hounds and haunting country estates to name a few. With The Adventure of the Speckled Band, he reaches a peak of storytelling, fear and, of course, mystery.