The Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

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by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are perennially popular, and "The Speckled Band" is among the best. It was its author's personal choice, coming at the top of a list of 12 as "the grim snake story," "an echo of which" Doyle said could be found "in all parts of the world." As if to confirm this, one of the characters in Paul Scott's Raj Quartet (1975) remembers that it was her favorite as a child: "I used to read it by torchlight under the bedclothes at the school Sarah and I went to at home. 'The Speckled Band' reminded me of India. Because of the snake …"

The power of imminent suggestion does attach to the Sherlock Holmes stories. They are incipient "ripping yarns," Victorian-Edwardian melodrama, but Holmes himself maintains the authority of the calculus and the elemental table, the abstract mathematical exactness of algebra and logarithms. The slightly overinflated and unsteady magniloquence of Doyle's prose counterpoints the restraint and precision of Holmes himself. Holmes's famous ingenuity of observation is secondary, however, to the postures struck in the various set scenes in each story. In "The Speckled Band" the scenes are instantly familiar to anyone who knows the Sherlock Holmes canon, but they are also superbly evocative to anyone coming to the stories fresh.

The stories, which were written for Strand Magazine, were carefully structured to appeal to an increasingly enthusiastic public, and they developed a predictable formula upon which individual adventures worked variations. "The Speckled Band" comes from the earliest volume of collected short stories, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was published in 1892. Scholars consider that the events of the story took place on 4 April 1883. That they take place during the course of a single day and night gives an impression of the gathering tension the story generates and for which it is memorable.

The title alludes to the dying exclamation of Miss Julia Stoner to her sister: "It was the band! The speckled band!" Recounting the events surrounding her sister's mysterious death to Holmes and his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson in their rooms in Baker Street, Helen Stoner inclines to the view that a band of gypsies camped on their father's estate may have been responsible. The observation that their headgear is made of spotted handkerchiefs provides a visual suggestion of their threat. There are also a cheetah and baboon at large on the grounds, strange whistling sounds in the night, and other unusual noises, including the clang of metal falling. The circumstances that surrounded her sister's death are recurring, and as the story begins, Miss Stoner is in fear for her own life.

Musing upon her tale, Holmes and Watson are suddenly interrupted by her father, whose very name—Dr. Grimesby Roylott—bespeaks the oppressive authority typical of the era of late Victorian patriarchy. In furious temper, he warns Holmes off by twisting the fireplace poker into a curve. After he leaves, Holmes coolly performs the impossible feat of straightening it out again. Such melodrama enhances the appeal of the ostensibly rational deductive processes Holmes engages upon. We know that there are anomalies in the story: snakes are deaf and do not like milk, and cheetahs do not inhabit India. Nevertheless, our disbelief is willingly suspended by virtue of the great detective's supreme competence and professional pride. We know that Holmes will solve the mystery when he and Watson travel to Stoke Moran to the manor, and, in getting to the solution, pace is more important than the pedantries of credible procedure.

It is tempting to subject the story's symbolism to close analysis. Roylott, for example, enters wearing a black top hat, a frock coat, and high gaiters and has a hunting crop. His large face is seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow by the sun of India and marked with every evil passion. His deep-set, bile-shot eyes and his high, thin, fleshless nose make him resemble a bird of prey. His pet baboon, which resembles a hideous and distorted child, is, along with the cheetah, a nocturnal dweller in the garden. Such images suggest the dominance of adult authority and its oppressive attitude toward the impressionable, curious, xenophobic, childish imagination. The speckled band is a nighttime threat, a phallic symbol, and Holmes, who lashes the snake with his own cane and turns it back upon its master to wreak its revenge, represents the more acceptable and attractive version of adult authority. Though equally a disciplinarian, he is protective, physically dependable, and wise. To do this, however, is to overread a story whose attractions arise not from explicit but from latent tendencies. It is also to indulge in pastiche to a degree that the actual stories never quite permit themselves.

In 1910, when he quickly needed to fill a theater in which he had invested, Doyle turned the story into a play. Written in three weeks, the play was much weaker than the story, but it proved popular. The use of a dummy snake was preferred after Doyle found that it could be made to give a more convincing performance. The story also gave its name to the Speckled Band Club, the group of American Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, and it has been the subject of at least one sequel, "The Return of the Speckled Band" (1987), by Edward D. Hoch. Doyle himself used the sinister-sounding name Moran again for the villain who takes over from Professor Moriarty after the latter's death in "The Empty House" (1905).

But perhaps the most significant legacy of the story is the impression it gives of Holmes as an arbiter of moral justice. Before the final confrontation he comments to Watson, "When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession. This man strikes even deeper, but I think, Watson, that we shall be able to strike deeper still."

—Alan Riach

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The Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

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