It’s a case so remarkable, it poses Holmes with a three-pipe problem.
London pawnbroker Jabez Wilson has flaming red hair. Wilson’s assistant, Vincent Spaulding, who had only recently been hired, brought him an advertisement that the Red-Headed League was looking to fill a position. Wilson, it turns out, is the only applicant hired due to the particular shade of his hair color. And you think there’s discrimination in your work place?
The details of the job are that he is to show up four hours a day and receive £4 per week. Should he leave the premises for any reason at all, legitimate or not, he forfeits the job and his wages forever. He is provided with a table and chair, and he must provide his own paper, pen, and ink. His task: to copy out by hand the Encyclopedia Britannica. He does this for a few weeks until he arrives to find the door locked and a sign upon it announcing the Red-Headed League is dissolved. Seeking answers, Wilson tracks down the address of the office manager only to find himself at an artificial knee factory where none there have ever heard of the manager in question.
Holmes and Watson go to see Spaulding, and Holmes observes the lad’s trouser knees are dirty. He taps on the pavement to the pawnbroker’s shop. Case solved. Just that easy. Of course, Holmes isn’t going to let Watson or the readers into his mind until the perpetrator has been apprehended.
Holmes calls upon Police Inspector Jones and Mr. Merryweather, a director of the bank next door to the pawnbroker’s shop. They hide themselves in the bank vault, where Merryweather reveals that they are sitting on a sizable fortune in French currency on loan but not yet unpacked. The thieves arrive through the floor as Holmes has suspected, and the ringleader is captured. The man’s name is John Clay, and according to Jones he’s a criminal mastermind who until now hasn’t even been seen, let alone caught.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes explains that the Red-Headed League was a ruse designed to get Wilson out of his office for a few hours a day that the tunnel to the bank vault could be dug through the cellar.
Conan Doyle one remarked that this was his second favorite story of all the Holmes canon. While it’s easy to see why, it’s also interesting to note that while he’s patting himself on the back, he overlooked the details of his case. Or as Holmes would say, “he sees, but he does not observe.” The advertisement was placed 27 April 1890, with the sign announcing the dissolution as 9 October 1890 — six months. Wilson tells Holmes he’d been at the work of the League for eight weeks and spells out specifically “just two months ago,” which would have been June, not October, when the League was dissolved, even though Holmes met with Watson about the case “one day in autumn of last year.” Crime novelist Dorothy L. Sayers points out that if the advertisement is simply moved to August, there is no discrepancy.
Why call out a detail like this? It’s simply because details in a Sherlock Holmes story matter. Sometimes we learn things we don’t otherwise notice, such as that Irene Adler lived only three years beyond her story appearance. In this case, it’s a simple editing issue so common to pulp publishing due to the breakneck speed at which they’re written. As is so often the case, what is seen cannot be unseen… and so I share because I can. You’re welcome.
Another detail worth calling out. For those of us who are fans of the late, great Jeremy Brett… his television adaptation of the story has John Clay working as a the prized student of a far more nefarious mastermind: Professor James Moriarty. While that is not the case here insofar as we are led to believe, there’s always a part of me that wonders… what if? The first time I ever saw that episode, I started seeing Moriarty’s hand behind nearly every case. And that’s just how the TV version would have you believe it. I think the reason I bought it so completely is due to the faithfulness of the series’ translation of these stories, which I consider to be the absolute best versions outside of the originals.
On the character level, we learn that Holmes has a particular appreciation for German violin music, being far more introspective than Italian in his view. It’s touches like this that happen so quickly, but ultimately lend to the idea of a three-dimensional character so real that he lives and breathes far more than many real people you can name. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
For myself, while I do so enjoy the absolute screwball nature of the setup, I find the ending a bit lackluster. I do not blame Conan Doyle in this save for the unfortunate fact that this does follow immediately from Irene Adler, and no star shines quite as brightly in the canon. By and large, I blame pop culture. This story’s gimmick, as well as the explanation itself, have been used time and again from The Three Stooges to Scooby-Doo to Batman, and it shows no signs of slowing down. It is a testament to how clever it is, and how mind-blowing it must have been at the time of its publication. In any case, the League serves as something of a palette cleanser for me between Adler and all the other stories to come. Even so, I would be remiss if I didn’t afford the tale the credit it is most certainly due on its own merits.