The Red Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a Sherlock Holmes short story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection.
Conan Doyle ranked it as his second favorite Holmes story, and according to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes 13th case of those chronicled by Dr. Watson.
I am of a similar mind as the author – this is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories thus far, though I am not quite a quarter of the way through the complete canon.
This case gives a couple of good examples as to how the writers of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes attempted to put all Holmes’ cases into chronological order. At one point Watson reads a newspaper and Holmes calls his attention to the date, April 27, 1890. That's easy enough, but Conan Doyle rarely does this; there only a few stories with precise dates. For the rest of the canon, the annotators worked backwards and forwards from these anchor points with contextual clues. Such as, Holmes referring to
…the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland…
Miss Sutherland’s case obviously precedes this case, and “the other day” suggests quite recently. Indeed, the annotators placed A Case of Identity just before The Red-Headed League.
Before I get to the case, I will point out rather imperiously, an appalling blunder in Holmes’ usually impeccable choice of words. Holmes refers to
…the strangest and most unique things…
Aha! I exclaim a la Sherlock Holmes. “Unique” should not have, indeed MUST not have any qualifier. Unique is an absolute. Something cannot be slightly unique, very unique, or most unique – it is either unique or it is not.
Now that I have censured Holmes – and by proxy Conan Doyle – let me get to why I liked this story.
It gives a nice glimpse of what makes Sherlock Holmes tick. Early in the case, Holmes tempts Watson to join him in the case…
I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.
After both hear the particulars and dismiss the red-headed client, Watson asks Holmes,
what are you going to do?
“To smoke,” he answered. “It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.
Later, while Holmes is engrossed, and seemingly diverted, by a strings concert, Watson observes...
All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.
When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.
And this bit, just amuses me, how cavalier Holmes is to danger – or even endangering his friend Watson.
And, I say, Doctor! there may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket.
Elsewhere Watson comments
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes.
And this bit. Holmes, often seems arrogant and contemptuous of lesser humans, but herein reveals he is just artlessly candid, as he describes officer Jones of Scotland Yard.
I thought it as well to have Jones with us also. He is not a bad fellow, though an absolute imbecile in his profession. He has one positive virtue. He is as brave as a bulldog, and as tenacious as a lobster if he gets his claws upon anyone.
And finally, upon solving the case…
“It saves me from ennui,” he answered, yawning. “Alas, I already feel it closing in upon me! My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”
“And you are a benefactor of the race.” Said I [Watson]
He shrugged his shoulders. “Well, perhaps, after all, it is of some little use.”