Reading Between the Lines of the “Red Circle”

Two men carry a third into a carriage, while the driver watches.

The 60 original stories continue to prompt discussion and commentary almost one hundred years after their completion. One such discussion began among the Hounds of the Internet and culminated in this conclusion by Don Dillistone. Read on to discover the unexplained backstory of “The Red Circle.”

By Don Dillistone

A frequent complaint about "The Adventure of the Red Circle" has been the ease and speed in which the intended victims (Gennaro and Emilia Lucca) had been hunted down by the minions of one of the principal members (Giuseppe Gorgiano) of a secret society. The society was seeking revenge because Genarro Lucca had disobeyed the order to kill his New York benefactor, Tito Castalotte. The Luccas had left New York and only a few days later had been located by their pursuers in London. The case was brought to Holmes by Mrs. Warren, a landlady of a rooming house, who was curious about a new lodger. It became more sinister when Mrs. Warren's husband was mistakenly abducted, then subsequently released, when his kidnappers realized he was not the lodger.

The problem arose recently on the Internet list, Hounds-L. The thread began with:

But hiding out in a city of five million seems to be as difficult as ever. It is 'ten days' from the time that Gennaro Lucca rents the room to the time Mrs. Warren comes to consult Holmes about her mysterious lodger. Emilia Lucca never left her apartment during this time. Her husband never called or wrote to her and certainly did not visit the house. And yet, in less than 10 days, Black Gorgiano and his men somehow manage to ferret out Emilia's hiding place.

This, of course, stretches our credulity to the breaking point. It just couldn't be true. So, what happened? I believe there are four key questions raised in the story, and if one can answer them, then I also believe one can explain exactly what went on.

  1. How did Gorgiano know the Luccas had fled to London?
  2. How did Gorgiano's deep hatred for the Luccas actually end up saving their lives?
  3. Why did the fourth advertisement in the Daily Gazette trigger the sudden surge in activity on the part of Gorgiano and his cohorts?
  4. When Mr. Warren was abducted, why was a coat was thrown over his head?

Here are the answers:

How did Gorgiano know the Luccas had fled to London?

After Gennaro found out that he had been chosen to kill Tito Castalotte, he and Emilia spent the entire night plotting their response. The next morning, according to Emilia's account, Gennaro "'had given our benefactor full warning of his danger, and had also left such information for the police as would safeguard his life for the future.'"

Obviously, Castalotte knew full well that Gennaro and his wife were now in deep trouble, and would have made sure that the pair had enough money to flee far from New York. In any case, "'Signor Castalotte was a bachelor, and I believe that he felt as if Gennaro was his son.'" So expense would have been no problem. It so happened that London turned out to be their destination. But it could have been Montreal; it could have been San Francisco; it could have been Paris. So the original objection was too restricted. How did they find Emilia so quickly when she could have been anywhere in world? How could they possibly have known she had gone to London?

There is only one answer. Gorgiano was fairly certain Gennaro would not carry out the murder, but would try and flee. So he took steps. That morning, Gennaro and his wife were followed from their home in Brooklyn to the offices of Castalotte and Zamba, thence to the police department, and finally to the docks where they boarded a boat just as it was leaving for England.

This information was passed on to Gorgiano, who telegraphed the name of the ship and description of the Luccas to his countreparts in England with orders that they meet the boat and track Gennaro and his wife. Then Gorgiano caught the next liner to England to personally direct the cult's vengeance.

Gennaro and Emilia were spotted when the boat docked in England and followed on the boat train to its London station, probably King's Cross. From there they hurried to a hotel. Gennaro left and went out to find a hiding place, finally settling on Mrs. Warren's establishment. Surveillance was set up. Late that same night he went out, and was dutifully followed back to his hotel. A few minutes later, Emilia exited the hotel. She would, of course, have put on Gennaro's clothes. This switch wouldn't have been done to throw off pursuit (the Luccas did not know they were being followed), but just in case Mrs. Warren or someone else in her house happened to still be awake and glance at the furtive figure re-entering the house.

But this also threw off Gorgiano's henchmen who were keeping watch at the hotel. Thinking she was Gennaro, they followed her back to Mrs. Warren's house. By the end of the evening, they were convinced they had done a good job and knew exactly where Gennaro was hiding -- in Mrs. Warren's house. They would have believed Emilia was still at the hotel, and others would have watched for her to try and slip away. Of course, as it turned out, it was Gennaro who left the hotel the next day, but the watchers were looking for a woman, and ignored the man who left the hotel and vanished into the streets of London. To the chagrin of the watching mobsters, Emilia never did emerge from the hotel.

Gorgiano arrived and was happy to know that Gennaro was cornered, but was upset that his wife seemed to have vanished. They maintained their 24-hour surveillance of the Warren's house, and for awhile, nothing really happened. It wasn't a case of "in less than 10 days, Black Gorgiano and his men somehow manage to ferret out Emilia's hiding place," they knew of the hiding place right from the start! It's just that they thought it contained Gennaro.

How did Gorgiano's deep hatred for the Luccas actually end up saving Gennaro's life?

Again we hear from Emilia, recalling for Holmes an incident that had occurred back in Brooklyn: "'(Gorgiano) pushed his way in, seized me in his mighty arms, hugged me in his bear's embrace, covered me with kisses, and implored me to come away with him. I was struggling and screaming when Gennaro entered and attacked him. He struck Gennaro senseless and fled from the house which he was never more to enter. It was a deadly enemy that we made that night.'"

Note that it wasn't just lust that inspired Gorgiano's attack on Emilia, it was also affection. He implored her to come away with him. Her response was enough to turn that affection into hatred, something duly noted by Emilia's referring to him as "'a deadly enemy.'" From then on, Gorgiano nursed a hatred for the couple. Both had betrayed him: He had personally initiated Gennaro into the Red Circle in Naples, and had been repaid by Gennaro's fleeing from the cult. He had made a play for Emilia, only to have been rewarded with frantic struggles and terrified screaming. His feelings towards Emilia were now lust mixed with hatred and his feelings towards his erstwhile protégé were jealousy mixed with hatred. Both had to suffer, but so deep were his feelings, surely he wanted personally to be the one to inflict that suffering.

"'It was part of their fiendish system to punish those whom they feared or hated by injuring not only their persons but those whom they loved, and it was the knowledge of this that hung as a terror over my poor Gennaro's head and drove him nearly crazy with apprehension.'"

When the Luccas boarded the boat for England, it would have been quite simple to have had some of Gorgiano's henchmen also immediately take passage and deal with them en route. They would simply just vanish, victims evidently of a mysterious "man overboard" accident. The reputation of the Red Circle would have been upheld.

But Gorgiano did not follow this course. He ordered that the Luccas be allowed to reach England without any impediments. His vengeance was to be personal, so much did he hate them. Kill them, yes, but he wanted to do it personally. But how much sweeter would be his vengeance if, before he killed Gennaro's wife, he forced her to submit to him. As Emilia correctly observed: "'Gorgiano had his private reasons for vengeance, but in any case we knew how ruthless, cunning and untiring he could be.'"And she had no doubts about her own vulnerability. "'(Gennaro) was to kill his best friend, or he was to expose himself and me to the vengeance of his comrades.'"

So the Luccas sailed off to England, blissfully unaware that they had already been spotted and marked for death. But they were allowed to live long enough to reach London. Even had Gorgiano time enough to catch the same boat, it was highly unlikely he would have been able to exact his planned vengeance upon the pair within the confines of such a crowded environment as an ocean liner. But once ashore, he could carry out his plans at his leisure. And that is what he intended to do.

So the couple survived the trip, and through a twist of irony, Gennaro's survival, based as it was upon such evil motives, actually allowed him to eventually kill Gorgiano, rather than the other way around.

Why did the fourth advertisement in the Daily Gazette trigger the sudden surge in activity on the part of Gorgiano and his cohorts?

Gorgiano and his gang were convinced that Gennaro was hiding in Mrs. Warren's home, and their constant surveillance indicated that he was staying put. But before they could act, they had to find Emilia. How sweeter would Gorgiano's vengeance be were he to humiliate her in front of her husband before killing them both. So they were busy scouring the city for his wife. As has been pointed out, this was no easy task in a city of five million.

The idea that the pair might be communicating through the personal columns of a newspaper would also occur to the Circle members. They had to check all the newspapers, but they spotted the same likely messages that Holmes had: "'Be patient. Will find some sure means of communication. Meanwhile, this column. G.'" This was their only lead to where Emilia might be. To take full advantage of it, they subsequently bribed a pressman at the "Daily Gazette" to slip them a copy of any further ads before they even got printed. They saw the next two, including the one with the code, both signed "G."

Around then they received some stunning news. Through their widespread intelligence resources (chiefly using corrupt officials) they discovered that Gennaro had been seen at Scotland Yard using its facilities to communicate with both the American and Italian police. How could this be, when he was supposedly holed up at the Warren's house? ("'My darling made use of the few clear days which our start had given us in arranging for a refuge for me in such a fashion that no possible danger could reach me (sic). For his own part, he wished to be free that he might communicate with the American and with the Italian police.'")

Then another shock. They saw the advance copy of the ad "High red house with stone facings. Third Floor. Second window left. After dusk. G." They recognized the "high red house" as being across the street from the Warren's. But Gennaro was no longer there! It appeared that he was, however, going to go to that house and start signaling. But to whom? Was anyone still hiding at the Warren's. Then the thought that maybe they had been hoodwinked the very first night began to dawn upon them. Perhaps, somehow, it was Emilia whom they had been keeping under such close scrutiny. But they had to be sure. They wanted both of the Luccas, and didn't want a partial success. They had to find out whether Emilia was indeed ensconced there. They needed information about what was going on in that house. So the very next morning they kidnapped Mr. Warren when he left at his customary time. That set the wheels in motion. The "phoney war" was over. It was time for action.

When Mr. Warren was abducted, why was a coat was thrown over his head?

Holmes spoke to Mrs. Warren regarding her husband's kidnaping: "'It is clear now that some danger is threatening your lodger. It is equally clear that his enemies, lying in wait for him near your door, mistook your husband for him in the foggy morning light.'" Holmes's first conclusion was correct, but he was dead wrong in his second. These men had been watching the house for days. So they knew full well what Mr. Warren looked like. They didn't intend to harm him; they just wanted to obtain some information from him and then release him. It is clear now that they threw the coat over his head at the beginning of his ordeal so he would be unable to identify them. He only had a brief chance to observe them, and that was in the foggy morning light. He was driven around London aimlessly and was engaged in seemingly idle talk with his captors. After about an hour, they had ascertained the lodger's strange behaviour, including the late night sortie the first day. The strange conditions insisted upon by the lodger plus the fact that neither Mr. Warren nor his wife had been allowed to see their new lodger after their first meeting confirmed what had happened. The lodger had to be the long-sought Emilia.

They reported this back to Gorgiano. It didn't take him long to map out a brilliant strategy; not only to capture Gennaro, but to flush Emilia out of her own hiding place. That night, Gorgiano would creep into the room across from the Warren house, overcome Gennaro, then signal to Emilia to join him in the house. Then he would have both of them.

It was a great idea, but he got careless. He paid for it with his life. And it ended up being Sherlock Holmes who signaled to Emilia.

As I said at the beginning, the answers to the four questions reveal just what happened in "The Adventure of the Red Circle." But it does take some reading between the lines.