In which Holmes and Watson meet a fiery pawnbroker whose luck has run out.
The Red-Headed League was considered by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle as the second-best of his Holmes stories when reflecting on his output in 1927. It’s hard to disagree with the author, as this adventure, in particular, has remained in my memory since first reading it many years ago.
That retention – not unusual for me as I tend to store details well – stands it ahead of all but one story in my mind too. Upon reading its title again, I at once knew the solution to the mystery and most of the details of the story.
Once of Conan-Doyle’s more ingenious plots, The Red-Headed League sees a poor pawnbroker approach Sherlock Holmes with an intriguing case. For two months he’s been paid by the titular league to sit in an office for four hours a day alone, copying out the encyclopaedia. Apparently selected for the job due to his fiery red hair, he found it an odd occupation but needed the money so went along with it.
One day, he turned up for work and found the office closed with a sign saying the League has been disbanded. Making some enquiries, the pawn broken learns that the office was rented under a false name and there is no record of the Red-Headed League ever existing.
Holmes believes he will have the case solved in a few days but warns the pawnbroker not to expect any further payment. Conferring with Watson, Sherlock reveals he suspects the truth runs much deeper than a peculiar prank played on an unsuspecting shopkeeper.
To return briefly to Conan-Doyle’s list, it became the last known opinion of his creation from the author, who died around three years later. There’s little detail in his list, but he does note that this story, alongside The Dancing Men, wins a place for its “originality of plot”. I’ll speak for the latter in due course, but as for The Red-Headed League, I can’t think of a mystery with its unusual combination of the humdrum and fantastical.
While the mystery is first-rate, its revelation requires some stage management by Conan-Doyle. Not unusual in his stories, but handled clumsily here, Holmes solves the case then proceeds to send Watson home while he makes arrangements. There is, of course, no reason for Sherlock to hold onto his knowledge other than to string the audience along. On this occasion though, it seems out of character for the theatrical detective to hold back information only to reveal it that evening. Usually, there is at least the mention of Holmes having to check a few facts before he is sure of himself.
Overall though, the story is more than enough to make up for this slight detour into contrivance. It’s original and unusual enough to linger long in the memory. Interestingly, in the 1985 Granada TV adaptation, the criminal in this case was revealed to be a student of Professor Moriarty. Had Conan-Doyle planned Holmes’ nemesis earlier, this would have made a wonderful addition to his web of villains working throughout the London underworld.
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