“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 story is often seen as one of the purest forms of plot. Not only are the protagonist (the detective) and his antagonist (the criminal) clearly identified by the time the story concludes, but the whole process of solving a case precisely parallels conventional plot structure. The story begins with exposition, as the case is presented to Holmes. While Holmes investigates the case, forms a theory, and prepares to test this theory, the action rises. The climax comes when Holmes’ theory is demonstrated to be correct because a criminal who would have otherwise escaped detection has been apprehended. Holmes’ explanation to Watson, which fills in missing information and provides a sense of closure because all loose ends have been tied up, serves as the story’s denouement, or falling action. One additional element often present in detective stories, especially typical of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, is a step in the story’s exposition through which Holmes gains his client’s-and his reader’s-trust. Just as Holmes reads the evidence of Wilson’s appearance to reveal his background, he often repeats this action with those who seek him out, sometimes even guessing the nature of their inquiry before they tell him. This establishes Holmes’ credibility from the story’s outset and gives readers faith that, however impossible a solution may seem at times, one will finally emerge if the reader perseveres until the story’s final paragraphs.
The movement and meaning of a detective story most often come through the mental and physical operations of the detective, rather than through intricate structures of symbols and images. However, the detective himself can be seen as a concrete symbol of abstract traits the author values, such as intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and unselfishness. Giving humanity to the abstraction are Sherlock Holmes’ character quirks, such as his sense of humor, pipe-smoking (along with a cocaine habit, mentioned in several other stories), musical tastes, and fluctuation between the poetic and energetic poles of his “dual nature.” Critics have also suggested that Doyle’s settings carry symbolic meanings. In Rosemary Jann’s judgment, the tunnel that connects the seedy world of Jabez Wilson’s pawnshop to the more refined business district of the City and Suburban Bank symbolizes the insecurity and vulnerability of middle- and upper-class life.
Even though they act on different sides of the law, it is curious that the character most resembling Sherlock Holmes in “The Red-Headed League” is the bank robber, John Clay. Both are intelligent and imaginative, and Clay’s pride in his royal background mirrors Holmes’ pride in his mental powers and detecting success. In Clay, Holmes recognizes a formidable mind that nearly matches his own. As police agent Jones suggests, Clay even has a charitable impulse to complement that of Holmes. It is understandable that a detective must think like a criminal to understand his thought processes and predict his behavior, accentuating in the detective those qualities most comparable to his quarry. However, detective stories like Doyle’s often emphasize innate similarities between these two figures.
Critics such as Ian Ousby trace this doubling to 19th-century distrust of the police, through which even an amateur detective bears traces of the negative qualities frequently attributed to early police forces. On a broader level, similarities between the detective and his doppelganger, or mirrored reflection, demonstrate that both good and evil can spring from the same sources. Only individual choice determines whether talents and skills are used positively or negatively.