When I first discovered the Great Detective and decided to read the stories for myself, I started with a paperback copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Back in elementary school, we’d have a travelling book fair that would come through every so often, and I bought this book and a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” the same day, beginning two incredible lifelong journeys at once. The first thing I did was flip through it and look at the illustrations for both books. Poe first, because that short story was accompanied by exquisitely painted illustrations on every page. (Note to self: a Poe reading project might be in order after I finish with Holmes.) The drawing that caught my eye for Holmes turned out to be a massive spoiler for this story, but it’s also the one that piqued my curiosity enough to read it first. I remember bookmarking it and reading it that evening after school, as soon as I plowed through my homework (“Red Death” was read during my lunch break). And so, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is the very Holmes story I ever read as a kid. As such, this one has a special place in my heart. Nostalgia has that effect, especially when the story is interesting.
It just so happens that “The Speckled Band” is the one Conan Doyle himself said was his best Holmes story. I’ll respectfully disagree, but I can see why he might be proud of this one. He even wrote and produced a play based on it, which premiered in 1910 at London’s Adelphi Theatre. The play was titled “The Stonor Case.” There are some differences in the details, including names of characters (Stonor instead of Stoner, for example). One has to wonder how anyone can be expected to uphold canon to Sherlockian level expectation when even the creator seemed incapable of it. But that’s an argument for another time. The play was not a success as the death of King Edward VII resulted in the West End theatres closing for mourning, and the Adelphi was already in debt to the point where it couldn’t recover. This play was supposed to have achieved enough success to alleviate the debt. Oops. The story has been popular on stage and screen in various adaptations since.
This story is one of a small handful that can be called a “locked room” mystery. The Sign of Four partially incorporated the idea, but the adventure itself was far larger, so apparently it doesn’t count on this list. In addition to “The Speckled Band,” the ones that do count as locked room mysteries are “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” and the fourth and final novel in the Holmes canon, The Valley of Fear. You know, in case you’d like to check those off a list somewhere.
Let’s talk about the case, shall we?
Right from the beginning, we know it’s bad when Holmes, usually a late riser, is standing over Watson’s bed rather early even by his standards. Their new client, Helen Stoner, is already waiting on them, desperate and afraid for her life. Her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, is a doctor who practiced in India and was married to Helen’s late mother, a widow who lived there. Dr. Roylett is the poverty-stricken heir to a formerly wealthy and violent family. He’s served prison time for killing his Indian butler in a fit of rage. He’s also a bit eccentric. He has befriended a band of Gypsies on his estate (if you’ll forgive the author’s use of the now politically-incorrect term) who surely act as spies and minions, and he keeps a cheetah and a baboon as pets. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you have animals like a cheetah and a baboon on the property, you stay inside the house to keep from getting mauled. Modifications have been made on the large manor house over the years, both inside and out, with the latest repairs forcing Helen to move into the room where her sister died.
Helen’s twin sister was engaged to be married, but she died just before the wedding. Helen heard, but was unable to understand the meaning of, her sister’s dying words: “The speckled band!” Now, two years later, Helen is engaged, and the house is plagued by strange noises and activities. Holmes is sympathetic, agreeing to take the case, but before he can leave to visit the estate, he is threatened in person by Dr. Roylott. As if Holmes needed another reason to nail this guy to the wall, am I right? Oh, did I forget to mention that he spotted Helen’s injuries, and she admitted he abuses her? Yeah… this guy’s going down. And let’s be honest here: the list of suspects is small. At any rate, Holmes opts to visit the courthouse first to examine the will of Helen’s late mother, then hits the estate grounds.
Holmes’ keen eye spots some features that would make very little sense upon first examination to the average person: a bed anchored to the floor so you can’t move it, a bell cord that does rings no bell, and a ventilation hole that does not ventilate, located conveniently between the room in question where Helen is now staying and the one belonging to Dr. Roylott.
The obligatory stake out ensues because Holmes already has the case figured out — suspect, motive, and means — and now he wants to catch things in the act. They spend the night in Helen’s room, lying in wait in darkness. It’s one thing to get Watson’s narration, telling you how nervous and alert he is, but somehow that really doesn’t do it justice after Holmes says, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. Your very life may depend upon it.” They’ve got a cane and a revolver, and they know something’s coming, but poor Watson doesn’t have Holmes’ insight as to what to expect.
They hear a dim metallic sound and see a bit of light through the vent. Holmes lights a candle, discovering the “speckled band” on the bell cord to be a poisonous snake, which he attacks, driving it back through the vent from whence it came. The snake, now understandably pissed off, attacks Dr. Roylott, who had been waiting for it to return after its murder of Helen. The motive? It’s in the will, of course. Helen’s mother had provided an annual income from her previous marriage, which each daughter could claim a third upon marriage. In removing his stepdaughters, Dr. Roylott would retain the entire sum, which he needs to pay off the mortgage on the estate.
With the death of Dr. Roylott, Helen inherits everything and is free to marry. Happily ever after, so it seems, assuming they got rid of the cheetah and the baboon. Yes, I think about these things. Other Sherlockians think instead about the snake, keeping in mind that these stories are “falsified or exaggerated chronicles of otherwise real events” to the uber-fans out there who play The Game. The description of “swamp adder” is not the name of any snake in India, poisonous or otherwise. Many conclude the Indian cobra is the mostly likely candidate given its speckled description and reputation for being among the most poisonous of the region.
Suffice it to say, the aforementioned spoiler illustration that caught my eye was the snake coiled up on Dr. Roylott’s bug-eyed head after it had bitten him to death, Holmes and Watson bursting in to chase after it. I mean, c’mon… how could I not start there with a picture like that?