The Persian flaw of The Red-Headed League

Why do I have this idiotic need to poke holes in the Canon? The Red-Headed League has to be in the top ten, maybe the top five of most Sherlockian’s favorite short stories. It’s my second favorite short story, pride of place going to the Dying Detective because of those oysters taking over the world. So why do I feel the need to expose any of its shortcomings?

Perhaps my reason for doing so is because, especially in the the case of REDH, I can put myself in Arthur Conan Doyle’s shoes. In creating a detective story, you need to balance the ingenious crime/criminal with an even more ingenious detective. For Sherlock Holmes to solve a baffling mystery, there must be some mistake the criminals commit or otherwise the Great Detective would never know a mystery needed to be solved. And in REDH, John Clay makes a whopper of a mistake.

REDH is the topic for the next (April 1st) Outpatients meeting of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, the Denver scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars. We usually discuss one of the short stories at our monthly meetings at Pint’s Pub the first Sunday of the month.

UPDATE: The next meeting of DWNP will be April 29 (the last Sunday of the month because of other society doings) at 12:30 p.m. at Pint’s Pub. The story will be The Adventure of the Dying Detective.

And in re-reading REDH, I was struck by how necessary it was that Clay makes this mistake, because he’s come up with a pretty good plan to rob the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank. He’s concocted the Red-Headed League to lure pawnshop owner Jabez Wilson from his shop four hours a day so that Clay can tunnel from the basement under Wilson’s shop/home and into the vaults of the bank, where are stored 30,000 gold Napoleons borrowed from the Bank of France.

The league is supposedly an endowment from London ex-pat Ezekiah Hopkins who emigrated to American, and works “for the propagation and spread of the red-heads as well as for their maintenance” in return for the negligible task of copying out the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for £4 a week.

Holmes quickly deduces the actual goal of this employment is to keep Wilson from his shop. A quick visit to Saxe-Coburg square confirms to Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. John Watson the proximity of the aforementioned bank.

Of course Dr. Watson witnesses all the events of the case—there’s no Holmes stepping out in disguise and disappearing for days in this story—and yet fails to penetrate the mystery, which Holmes does fairly quickly: “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

Now Holmes is alerted to this case by the fact that the pawnbroker goes to the offices of the Red-Headed League and finds this sign: “THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED. October 9, 1890.” We’ll ignore the fact that Oct. 9, 1890, was a Thursday, even though Holmes later says: “But to-day being Saturday rather complicates matters.” Instead we’ll focus our attention on the fact that this fourth smartest man in London, as Holmes describes Clay, dissolves the Red-Headed League the day of the robbery and the day that Wilson expects to be paid.

Wouldn’t it have been smarter to pay off Wilson? He’d been copying the encyclopedia all week and expected to be paid. He would understandably be upset not to be paid his week’s wages. After all, £4 in 1890 would be equivalent to several hundred pounds today. Of course Mr. Wilson would be upset and the mystery of it might cause him to seek the one man in London smart enough to have puzzled it out.

As a writer, however, I understand Conan Doyle’s dilemma. He’s come up with a very clever device in the Red-Headed League and has to find some way of bringing it to Holmes’ attention, and thus Doyle prematurely dissolves the league.

And there’s another problem with the plot that dates from the very first day Mr. Wilson learns of the league in the April 27th edition of The Morning Chronicle (a real paper which closed in 1862).

“TO THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE: On account of the bequest of the late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, U. S. A., there is now another vacancy open which entitles a member of the League to a salary of £4 a week for purely nominal services. All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible. Apply in person on Monday, at eleven o’clock, to Duncan Ross, at the offices of the League, 7 Pope’s Court, Fleet Street.”

Mr. Wilson then reports of the results of this advertisement:

“I never hope to see such a sight as that again, Mr. Holmes. From north, south, east, and west every man who had a shade of red in his hair had tramped into the city to answer the advertisement. Fleet Street was choked with red-headed folk, and Pope’s Court looked like a coster’s orange barrow.”

Surely Holmes, with his daily study of the papers and his love of the outré, would have been aware of the Red-Headed League from day one. Even if he’d missed the clipping, he probably should have heard of the commotion.

Now I’m willing to allow that Holmes may be playing some close game, where he actually knew of the league since April and just needed one more bit of information before he was prepared to catch Clay, although you’d think he’d only one or two pipes to work out the solution.

But what does it matter? I still delight in the little touches of this story: Clay’s confederate pulling Mr. Wilson’s hair to see if his eyes water; the little misgiving about Wilson being unmarried; the Vegetarian Restaurant; and Wilson talking of his newfound knowledge of Abbots and Archery and Armour and Architecture and Attica. I suppose Clay’s premature dissolution of the league is the Persian flaw that makes for a perfect Sherlock Holmes adventure.

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