A reading of a classic Sherlock Holmes story
‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ is one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Doyle himself recognised that many readers would include ‘The Speckled Band’ among their list of favourite Holmes outings. It’s easy to read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and enjoy them, with no additional analysis deemed necessary. But closer inspection reveals its links to previous detective fiction and the reasons for its status as one of the finest of Doyle’s short stories.
‘The Speckled Band’, in summary, focuses on the case of Helen Stoner, a woman of thirty who lives with her bullying and domineering stepfather, Sir Grimesby Roylott, at Stoke Moran. She is nervous and fearful when she comes to Baker Street to consult Sherlock Holmes, and tells him her back-story. In India, Roylott had married Ms Stoner’s mother, a young widow of a major-general, when Ms Stoner and her sister were both very young, and their mother bequeathed her substantial wealth to Roylott while she was alive, on condition that an annual sum be paid to the sisters when they married. Eight years prior to the main events of the story, the girls’ mother had been killed in a railway accident, and Roylott had taken the two girls to live with him at Stoke Moran. Roylott had become violent and reclusive, though he was known to associate with wandering gypsies who hang around on the plantation near Stoke Moran, and we learn he has a passion for exotic animals which are shipped over from India, including a baboon and a cheetah.
Two years before, shortly before she was due to be married, Helen’s sister Julia mentioned to Helen that she had heard a whistling sound at night while she was in her bedroom. Shortly after this, Helen is woken by a loud scream from her sister’s room, followed by a metallic whistling sound. She rushes to her sister’s aid, but Julia dies shortly after – her last words being the enigmatic ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ How she died baffles everyone, including the coroner at the inquest. Helen herself believes her sister’s dying words to be a possible reference to the ‘band’ of gypsies – known for wearing spotted neckerchiefs – who hang around the estate.
Now, Helen is about to be married. Coincidentally, or so it seems, building work has put her bedroom out of use, so she has had to move into her dead sister’s bedroom. Last night, before she came to seek Holmes’s advice, Helen had heard the whistling sound that had been heard the night her sister died. Holmes arranges to come and inspect the room where Helen sleeps, and she departs for Stoke Moran. Before Holmes and Watson can follow, the door opens and Dr Grimesby Roylott enters, threatening Holmes if he meddles in his affairs. Holmes then goes and looks up the will of the deceased wife (the mother of Helen and the late Julia), which confirms Holmes’s suspicions that, if both sisters had married and taken their share of the allowance, Dr Roylott would have to get by on a ‘pittance’.
Holmes and Watson then travel to Stoke Moran, where they are met by Helen Stoner. Her stepfather is still in London on business, so Holmes takes his opportunity to undertake an analysis of the room in which Helen’s sister died, and in which Helen now sleeps. He discovers that the bell-pull, installed a few years ago, is a dummy, and the ventilator, installed at around the same time, is connected to Dr Roylott’s neighbouring room rather than with the outside air. In Dr Roylott’s room, he spots a dog-lash coiled to make a whip, a large iron safe supposedly filled with the doctor’s papers, and a saucer of milk. Holmes tells Helen to retire to bed early that night, while he and Watson wait in the inn in the nearby village. When she gives them the signal, they will sneak into the house and occupy the room where Helen usually sleeps; she will move to her old room.
When Holmes and Watson are in the room, they spend several hours keeping a silent vigil, until they hear Dr Roylott moving about and lighting a lantern in the neighbouring room. Then, Holmes begins to strike the rope with his cane; there follows a deadly cry from the neighbouring room, and when Holmes and Watson go into Roylott’s room they find the doctor sitting in his chair, the dog-lash in his hand, and a swamp adder around his neck. The doctor has been bitten by the deadly snake and died in seconds. Holmes uses the dog-lash to capture the snake (the ‘speckled band’ Helen’s sister had been referring to in her dying moments) and place it back in the doctor’s iron safe.
The wicked stepfather is dead – his own violence having recoiled upon himself – and Helen Stoner is free to marry and receive her inheritance. Mulling over the case, Holmes admits that he started out on the wrong scent, believing that the ‘speckled band’ referred to the band of gypsies who were acquaintances of the doctor. When he inspected the room in which one sister had been killed and the other now slept, he deduced that the dummy bell-rope was there to act as a bridge for some sort of creature – such as a venomous snake – to enter the room and climb down onto the bed. The whistling sound was the doctor using a tin whistle to coax the snake back after it had carried out its deadly task. (Holmes guesses that the saucer of milk had been used to train the snake to return to the doctor when summoned by the whistle.) The whistling sound Helen had heard the night before was the doctor recalling the snake to him, after unsuccessfully goading it to enter Helen’s room and deliver the deadly bite. But if Roylott tried enough times, eventually, one night, the snake would end up biting her and he would be able to keep his full allowance from his deceased wife. Holmes acknowledges that it was his blows with the cane which roused the animal’s ‘snakish temper’, so he was indirectly responsible for the doctor’s death, but he won’t lose too much sleep over that.
‘The Speckled Band’ is widely regarded as one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories, and this detailed plot summary reveals exactly why it is so admired. It has a believable but not easily guessable solution, it’s packed with high drama (it’s a nice touch that Watson is more or less literally in the dark when Holmes attacks the swamp adder in the room, unaware of what’s going on, and piquing our interest in the mystery further), and it has a satisfying conclusion which ends with the damsel being freed from her distress and the villain getting his just deserts. (In this respect, with its wicked stepfather and young maiden, not to mention its use of poisons and deadly animals, it has the ring of a fairy tale about it.) It’s not perfect in every regard: the notion that a coroner would have to be particularly sharp-eyed to spot the two puncture-marks on the victim’s skin, showing where the snake’s fangs had pierced to inject the poison, seems a little far-fetched, even if detecting the venom in the blood would have proved difficult for an 1891 doctor. And Roylott’s forename, Grimesby, is a little too monstrous to be quite plausible. But then this is part of the fun of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which require us to suspend our disbelief a little.
And ‘The Speckled Band’ is a classic example of the ‘locked room’ mystery, in which a crime is committed under seemingly impossible conditions, in a room in which there are no obvious means for the criminal to enter and exit. Edgar Allan Poe, as with so many things Conan Doyle would use (and, arguably, improve upon) in his Sherlock Holmes stories, blazed a trail in this regard, with his pioneering 1840 story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (sometimes called the first detective story) involving a similar case of a ‘locked room’ mystery which the detective, C. Auguste Dupin, endeavours to solve. At the risk of delivering a spoiler (look away now if you wish to be spared it), the presence of the baboon in ‘The Speckled Band’ as one of the doctor’s exotic pets (Holmes and Watson spot it moving through the garden when they break into the house) seems to be a subtle nod to the orangutan which commits the crime in Poe’s foundational tale.
In the case of ‘The Speckled Band’, of course, the solution involves underhand trickery and an exotic creature – the ‘speckled band’ or snake of the title – rather than the red herring Doyle throws out way, namely the ‘band’ of travelling gypsies wearing spotted neckerchiefs. This highlights an important feature of the locked-room mystery: the solution must be neither too obvious (and so unsatisfying) nor too outré (so as to strain incredulity to breaking point). This is true of all detective fiction, of course, but the appealing thing about locked-room mysteries is that they scale down the essence of the crime to a single room, like a mystery novel in microcosm. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the British empire lurks in the background (Dr Roylott having met the girls’ mother out in India, and having a menagerie of animals from that country), and in this connection, the story also reveals a debt to one of the first detective novels, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. The red herring provided by the gang of gypsies also recalls the Indian jugglers from Collins’s novel, who also hang around the country house in which the crime takes place. But Holmes’s analysis of the situation and his daring rescue of Helen Stoner from the jaws (or fangs) of death make this an original take on some older mystery tropes, one of the most satisfying tales in the Sherlock Holmes canon.
Image (top): Illustration for ‘The Speckled Band’ by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons.