Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for the creation of his detective character Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Watson. Doyle based the characters on his own experiences as a doctor and created the stories as a way to earn a living. Born in Scotland in 1859, Doyle entered medical school at the age of seventeen. One of his teachers was Dr. Joseph Bell, whose skill in diagnosing illness resulted in a heightened sense of observation and reasoning. As a result Bell could, while diagnosing a patient’s illness, accurately read clues to his or her background and personality as well. Bell’s unusual ability made a lasting impression on Doyle, who modeled some of Holmes’ deductive powers on his teacher’s example. Doyle served as a ship’s surgeon in the early 1880s, traveling to Africa and the Arctic, before returning to England and finishing his degree. At that time, establishing a medical practice was difficult, and Doyle waited in vain for patients to appear. Fortunately, Doyle had another ambition: to become a writer. Several of his early stories, which featured adventure and mystery aboard ships and in Africa, had appeared in magazines while he was still a medical student. The increasing burden of time on his hands-along with a wife and growing family to support-led Doyle to attempt a novel. Knowing that detective stories often brought their writers popular success, Doyle turned to his memories of Dr. Bell to create his work of fiction. Relying on the model set by Edgar Allan Poe’s stories of the amateur detective Dupin, whose cases are narrated by an admiring and less clever friend, Doyle introduced Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. This novel met with only a lukewarm reception from readers, but an American publisher encouraged Doyle to continue the series with The Sign of Four in 1890. Even though Doyle continued to write and publish other kinds of stories, especially science fiction and historical fiction, the need for money kept taking him back to the profitable Sherlock Holmes. He was able to give up his unprofitable medical practice in 1891 when the short tales of Holmes’ exploits began to command larger and larger payments from the British Strand magazine, where they were being published. “The Red-Headed League” was collected in the 1892 volume The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which Doyle dedicated to Dr. Bell. Though Doyle’s work is not targeted to young adult readers, his work is nevertheless read and studied by students.
The story begins as Dr. Watson drops in on his friend Sherlock Holmes to find him in conversation with a man named Mr. Jabez Wilson. Wilson has come to Holmes with a problem concerning an organization for which he was working but that has mysteriously disappeared. Wilson owns a pawnshop but had for the last two months been employed part-time. At Holmes’ urging, he tells his story.
“The Red-Headed League,” like Doyle’s other detective stories, presents a detailed portrait of turn-of-the-century London and gives readers glimpses of a society undergoing rapid change. Among these changes are alterations in the class structure, Britain’s rise as a world economic power, and urban growth-along with a rising crime rate. As he attempts to restore a social order threatened by criminals like those in “The Red-Headed League,” Sherlock Holmes embodies the values of intelligence and individual achievement.
As the story of bank robbers thwarted by a capable investigator, “The Red-Headed League” presents readers with a number of themes related to the classic contest between good and evil. The opposition between detective and criminal tests the warring values each side represents. With the detective’s victory, the beliefs and qualities he embodies are confirmed as superior.
“The Red-Headed League” is narrated from the first-person perspective of Dr. Watson, who participates in all aspects of Sherlock Holmes’ case. What makes this narrative style especially clever is that Doyle creates a narrator who sees and hears the same information that Holmes does and who can relay the information systematically to readers, but who cannot interpret it. This technique is characteristic of the early detective story, pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe in his tales of the sleuth Dupin. It creates suspense, since readers-along with the sidekick narrator-do not have access to the detective’s innermost thoughts until he finally chooses to reveal them after the mystery is solved.
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.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Investigate psychological theories current in the late 19th century, and examine the ways that Doyle makes use of these theories within his story. You may want to focus on a specific branch of psychology, a related field such as criminology, or the theories of one particular psychologist.
“The Red-Headed League” first appeared in a popular British magazine, the Strand, in August of 1891. It was republished in 1892, along with eleven other Sherlock Holmes stories, in the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Its style and structure make it a nearly perfect example of the modern detective story, first devised by Edgar Allan Poe 50 years earlier. Doyle’s ingenious plots and captivating central characters, Holmes and his sidekick Watson, brought the author literary success in his own time. Further, the Sherlock Holmes stories provided later writers with models for their own work. The existence of today’s popular detective tales, whether in the form of books, movies, or television shows, are in large part due to Doyle’s influence.