Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

Red-Headed League
Chris Bennett

If there was a story that totally misleads by its title and then its climax, in a stunning sort of way, it’s “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. “League” begins, humorously, with a portly, middle-aged, red-haired man, Jabez Wilson, calling on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson MD.

Wilson has an unusual circumstance. He hopes Holmes can find a way to explain it. Seems his employer, the League of Red-Headed Men, abandoned him, with nary a word. He arrived at work, one day, to find a sign on the office door indicating, “The Red-Headed League is Dissolved.”

The lost job was unique. Wilson received a good salary, about $600 a week, from the League of Red-Headed Men, for copying an encyclopedia. Seems a wealthy American, with ginger hair, willed his fortune to redheaded men.

The wealthy American thought men with red hair were poorly treated. Employers, for example, discriminated against redheaded men, not hiring or promoting them. Thus, he left his fortune to compensate redheaded men and asked only for them to perform trivial clerical tasks, such as copying an encyclopedia.

Wilson, a shopkeeper, had seen a newspaper advertisement, placed by the League, offering work only to redheaded men. As Wilson had ginger hair, his shop assistant, Vincent Spaulding, urged him to apply; his shop was busy mainly in the evening and he could devote a full day to the League. Many applied for the job, but the League hired Wilson, somewhat to his surprise.

After a few weeks, the League disbands. Wilson talks to manager of the office building where the League had it office; he knows nothing of the League, only that the rent was prepaid. Deprived of found money, Wilson turns to Holmes for help finding out what happened.

Reading “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” you are stunned, as you don’t expect comedy in a story about Sherlock Holmes. Yet, you are intrigued, as you know that the stunning reversal into something serious is just around the corner. This is why “League” is among the most favoured stories about Sherlock Holmes.

True to form, the reversal arrives. The simplicity of the plot and the swiftness of the conclusion astound. Only Holmes can do it, you think. All it takes to solve this case is a visit to the shop owned by Wilson.

On meeting Spaulding, Holmes notices much dirt, apparently earth stains, on his pant knees. Across the street from the shop, owned by Wilson, is a large bank. Walking near the bank, Holmes notices the pavement is a bit weak; it seems to sag when walked on.

Voila! The case resolves. Holmes informs the police and the bank director.

The three men wait in the bank vault, one night. They catch the thieves, led by Vincent Spaulding, the shop assistant to Wilson, sneaking into the basement of the bank. The thieves set up the Red-Headed League and hired Jabez Wilson to get him out of the shop during the day, while they dug a tunnel, under the street, to bank.

Fascinating, don’t you think? This story makes for great reading. It makes you wonder how our minds seem to miss the simplest details. Simple details, such as dirty trouser knees or a saggy sidewalk, hold much meaning.

This story could indeed be a big lesson in how much training our brains need. The appeal of Holmes is mostly to teenagers or so it seems. The plot, of “League,” is such it intrigues even the most alert readers and therein lies the success of this story.

What begins in a humorous vain completely changes in a few pages. If you are a Holmes fan, you come to expect dramatic twists and turns in the plot. Where and how the plot turns is the key to the success of every Holmes story.

Often, “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” is the introduction to Sherlock Holmes. As it’s the only Holmes adventure not to involve a murder, “League” is included in many primary and middle school readers. Simple, yet intricate, “League” encourages young readers to find out more about Holmes.

Chris Bennett writes from Uxbridge, Middlesex, UK

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