The Great British Sherlock Read Off – 4. The Red-Headed League

Sherlock Challenge

For fans of “Sherlock” and who haven’t read the books before, this is a story that you may not be familiar with.

Basically, the story involves a pawnbroker by the name of Jabez Wilson who consults Holmes on a case where he has felt that he has been on the receiving end of a practical joke.  Wilson, a man with red hair, answered an advertisement for a job with a beneficiary trust called “The League of Red-Headed Men”.  His job, to copy all of the entries in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

There are conditions to his job, however. He must work there between 10 am and 2 pm, he must not leave his place of employment and he cannot take a day’s absence or he will forfeit his role with the League.

However, after two months service with the League, Wilson finds on attending work that the League has been dissolved and that nobody has heard of the League’s administrator, Mr Duncan Ross.

I do have a familiarity with this story through the first series of the Sherlock Holmes stories as transmitted by Granada Television.

The story, like “A Scandal In Bohemia” is a short one and therefore means that the narrative is fast-paced, but manages to be full of detail, partly down to the exposition that the character of Jabez Wilson provides at the start of the story and partly because, unlike the previous three Holmes stories that I’ve read, there are no establishing demonstrations of Holmes’s powers of detection, apart from his ascertaining and linking up clues as to Wilson’s past.

With readers now becoming more familiar with the partnership of Holmes and Watson, there is also less need to describe specifics about Holmes’s methods of detection in this story, with the clues coming in a “blink and you’ll miss them fashion”, something that to this day appears in many a detective or procedural television programme, book or film.

One area of interest in this particular story is Watson’s observations of Holmes himself – in particular, the two sides to Holmes’s character.  On the one hand, he is a man who is in his chosen vocation for the thrill of the hunt, whilst on the other, he is an admirer of the calm atmosphere of the musical arts – whilst dispelling the popular myth that Holmes was poor at playing the violin as he describes Holmes as being both a competent violinist and a composer.  (A trait that “Sherlock” fans will certainly recognise from the episode “The Sign Of Three”).

The story itself is a straight-forward procedural story with a beginning – Jabez’s story flowing swiftly into Holmes and Watson’s investigation and the final act of their apprehending the suspects.  It’s also a less emotionally led story than what I have read before, certainly less so than “A Scandal In Bohemia” or “The Sign Of Four” which attempts to shine some light on the emotional character of Sherlock and John.  In fact, this is a much lighter, in fact slightly comedic, story in comparison to the previous three.

For fans of the televised “Sherlock Holmes” version of this story, there is a major change between the original work and the TV version in the fact of who actually masterminds this plot.  No doubt due to the fact that even in the 1980’s we were being treated to a minimal story arc which culminated at the end of the first series of Granada’s adventures for the Brett incarnation of the role.

In summing up, a pleasant read and a story that can be read with ease in a couple of hours.

For those of you following this challenge, the next story that I’ll be reading will be the short story “A Case Of Identity”.


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