The Red-Headed League – Hounds Summary

Ralph Edwards – Sat, 24 Sep 1994

  • What indicates this to be an early or not so early a case?
  • Why does this case precede A Case of Identity?
  • What sources confirm “thousands of cases”?
  • What are possible snuff clues?
  • What inferences can be drawn from the wear on the frock coat?
  • How many coats was Jabez Wilson wearing?
  • Why was the advertisement so long and addressed to the League?
  • How should Spaulding have improved his mind?
  • Are there any hints why Wilson’s business fell off?
  • Is age fourteen of any significance?
  • Why was Wilson asked about his marital status?
  • What may be the reason for the short hours?
  • Why was the Encyclopedia used?
  • Didn’t the crowd draw the accountant’s interest?
  • When would an artificial knee-cap be worn?
  • Why is the corner occupied by a shop and not the bank?
  • Did Vincent Spaulding own more than one pair of trousers?
  • Why did Saturday complicate matters?
  • Wouldn’t a building like the pawn shop have a back entrance?
  • Was the girl in on the plot?
  • Would the League be legal today?

Chris Redmond – Fri, 29 Dec 1995

The remarkable sight of London streets choked with red-headed men should have led to mentions in the daily newspapers, which scholars have unfortunately been unable to find. What kinds of explanations are most satisfactory for the absence of newspaper references to the events in Sherlock Holmes’ cases?

Sonia Fetherston – Fri, 21 Mar 1997

“If we could change just one variable in a story, would that story still work? Or would the outcome change? How? And does changing one variable inevitably lead to changes in other variables?”

The vigil in the vault climaxes with a seam of light on the floor. “A gash seemed to open and a hand appeared; a white, almost womanly hand, which felt about in the centre of the little area of light.” This week’s variable is John Clay’s gender. To what degree would The Red-headed League change if Holmes’ opponent was the fourth smartest person in London, a woman working for half-wages in a pawn shop? Do you still like the story if the bad “guy” is a woman with mud stains on her skirt?

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 5 Jun 1998

For the coming week, the Hounds will draw the cover of “the fourth smartest man in London,” John Clay, as he schemes to deprive a bank of its 30,000 gold napoleons. He dupes an unwitting accomplice, his employer Jabez Wilson, into leaving him free to undertake what can only be called “skuldiggery” as he tunnels from Wilson’s pawn shop basement to the subterranean vault of the adjoining Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank.

In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will post the Comments and Questions for this Adventure. As always, a pack of eager and supremely capable Hounds waits to swing to the line.

This Adventure is one of two which involve both a forger and a fraudulent will. In both stories, forgery has nothing to do per se with the will. The forger in REDH is John Clay, alias Vincent Spaulding, who is described as being a “murderer, thief, smasher and forger.” Clay is the well-educated grandson of a royal duke. He is about 30 years old, small, stout-built and clean-shaven, with a white acid splash on his forehead and pierced ears. It is a tribute of sorts to his intellect and cunning that police all over the British Isles knew his description minutely but were unable to apprehend him. Even Holmes “had one or two turns with him” but had never laid eyes upon John Clay until this story. Which gives rise to my first question: If Holmes crossed swords with Clay on one or two occasions and had yet to lay eyes on Clay; and Clay is still at liberty, could one or both of these occasions have been included among those in which Holmes admitted to having “been beaten”?

What also puzzles me is why Clay and his agile accomplice Archie saw fit to dissolve the Red-Headed League? By October 9, 1890, they had finished their tunnel, or very nearly so, and were ready to “crack the crib.” Why should they risk that Jabez Wilson would go looking for answers when his billet was lost so abruptly? Wouldn’t it have been preferable to just continue playing out the charade, give Wilson his four sovereigns on the Saturday on which the heist was planned, and be long gone on the Monday when he arrived at Pope’s Court to continue his copying of the Britannica?

This leads me to another question: Why didn’t Clay change his trousers when the digging was finished? He wasn’t digging when Holmes came calling because Clay opened the door “instantly” when Holmes knocked. And so far as Clay knew, Wilson might well have come storming back to the shop from Pope’s Court without following the red herring that was intended to lure him to King Edward Street. Speaking of King Edward Street, was there such a crying need for artificial kneecaps in Victorian England that they had to be mass-produced?

There were fifteen crates containing 2,000 gold napoleons apiece, packed between layers of lead foil. Why the lead foil? Gold doesn’t tarnish or rust like many other metals.

At an estimated half-ounce per napoleon, the boodle would have weighed nearly a half-ton in the aggregate. How did Clay and his accomplice plan to make off with 469 pounds of gold coins apiece? It would have taken a weary length of time to drag (the tunnel surely was crawl-space only) all of that weight back through the tunnel and out of the pawn shop — without disturbing Wilson or the live-in teenage housekeeper. Even in hundred-pound loads (and Clay and Archie both are described as small men), it would have taken five trips per man to make off with the loot.

What did the dastardly duo do with the dirt from digging the tunnel? Just leave it in Wilson’s pawn shop basement? Did Jabez Wilson never descend to his cellar? And are we to believe that a major bank branch would have a storage vault with a floor composed of paving-blocks laid on bare earth? If they had been set properly in cement, it would have taken a lot longer to break through the floor of the vault and a great deal more noise would be made in breaking through it.

Finally, what did Clay mean when he shouted to Archie, “Jump, Archie, jump, and I’ll swing for it?” Bank robbery is not a capital crime in itself. Was Clay just using underworld argot for “take the rap?” Or did he believe that he would pay the ultimate price for having been, in another time and place, a murderer?

Discover more about The Red-Headed League and read the canon.