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How Holmes outsmarts us in The Adventure of the Speckled Band


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Hi there! I'm new to the forum, so excited to meet you all!

I've been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories since I was little, but no matter how hard I try, I never figured out the case before Holmes. I recently reread The Adventure of the Speckled Band to find out why, and I want to share my findings with you.

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(I'm using images from the Jemery Brett adaption of the story – great adaptation, btw)

 

Hiding evidence?

The simplest way to keep the ending a secret is to hide important evidence from the readers, but I don't think this is true for Speckled Band.

We are actually given a lot of hints that the killer was a snake. The snake is the puzzle piece that connected everything together – the dummy bell-pull, the ventilator, the milk, the whip, and the unknown cause of death.

There are hints spread all across the story for the snake. We know at the start of the story that Dr. Roylott (the culprit) keeps Indian animals around, and it's brought up a few times in the story. Holmes and Watson even run into the baboon at some point. Holmes talks about the milk and the safe being for a "cat", too. 

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Red herring

Instead of simply hiding evidence, the story uses more subtle strategies to mislead us. The famous red herring, the gypsy people on the estate, threw me off the track a lot. I remember both Helen Stoner (the client) and Holmes suspected them at some point. Of course, Holmes changed his mind after seeing the room for himself, but he didn't tell us that he changed his mind, so we are left thinking that the gypsy people are somehow connected to the case.

 

Holmes's thoughts

Another interesting thing I found is that we know less and less of Holmes's thoughts as the story goes on. At the start of the story, Holmes makes his usual sharp deductions about his client, and perfectly explains how he arrives at those conclusions.

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But as the story goes on, we start to only see him do things without much explanation. We see him examine the window, the bed, the bell-pull, and so on, but he doesn't say what he sees in them. I think this is a clever way to hide things from the readers without making us feel left out – we are still on the scene with him, but we don't know what exactly he is thinking anymore. 

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Let me know what you think about the story! If you have also tried to figure out the case before Holmes, please tell me know how it went!

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Greetings, L Lawliet, and welcome to Sherlock Forum!   :welcome:

I have a ridiculously hard time reading/viewing "The Speckled Band" objectively, simply because the title irritates me!

There was sufficient light in the room for the late sister to see the speckles, so it seems odd that she didn't recognize the snake as such, and "band" seems like a rather odd description for a snake-like object in any case.  Of course she said it as she was dying from its poison, so she probably wasn't thinking clearly, and may have been groping for words.  And then Holmes and others are simply trying to interpret what she said.

But why would anyone assume that "the speckled band" refers to a band of gypsies, merely because they wear speckled kerchiefs?  Wouldn't most people just say "the gypsies"?  If the late sister had a personal habit of referring to them in that way, it seems like the client sister would be aware of that and would inform Holmes.  But of course everyone (with the possible/probable exception of Holmes) is groping for a meaningful interpretation of the phrase, so they can't afford to toss out an idea simply because it doesn't make sense at first glance.

Nevertheless, the title is a blatant red herring (maybe this is what bugs me?), whereas Watson's titles are generally far more to the point.  Even others that are a bit fanciful don't tend to be misleading.  Do you (or anyone else here) know of any other red-herring Holmes titles?

 

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  • 1 month later...

Hello . . not sure our new member has come back since the OP.

On 5/8/2022 at 10:33 PM, Carol the Dabbler said:

Nevertheless, the title is a blatant red herring (maybe this is what bugs me?), whereas Watson's titles are generally far more to the point.  Even others that are a bit fanciful don't tend to be misleading.  Do you (or anyone else here) know of any other red-herring Holmes titles?

I'd forgotten about the band of gypsies . . they are the red herring but the title itself, just like Conan Doyle did with 'The Lion's Mane' tells us upfront 'who' the killer is.  I guess ACD was counting on the general ignorance of fauna when he came up with some of these titles.  The Lion's Mane is an actual species of large jellyfish that inhabits the English channel among other places.  Not having had the privilege of growing up in a marine area, I had no idea this animal existed but surely inhabitants of the English coast would be familiar?  Hard to imagine ACD fooled his contemporary readers that had experience of sea life.  Ditto this snake.  I'm assuming the speckled band came from the subcontinent, seeing as there aren't any poisonous snakes native to the British Isles that I'm aware of.  My herpetology is pretty non-existent, though.

We've discussed before our mutual dislike of this story, I think.  It's consistently ranked as the #1 fan favorite of the canon, and routinely appears in language arts textbooks geared to the middle school level.  I think this is where I first read this story.  I can see why it's chosen:  It's a rip-roaring 'boys' adventure', and the case is much more simplistic than is usual in a Holmes tale.  Most human beings have a natural aversion to snakes and this story conjures up a deliciously creepy/horrible scenario with a snake that can be enjoyed vicariously.  The stepfather is a villain, but there is nothing that would be considered too risque for an audience of pre-teens.  One does not tend to find Holmes fare like "The Solitary Cyclist" or "The Copper Beeches" so often in youth collections owing to the implication of sexual violence therein.  Or heavens forfend, something like 'The Yellow Face'!

There are some grand 'best friend bonding' moments between Holmes and Watson here but BAND is second-rate Holmes in my opinion, when it comes to the dialogue and the deductions.  My favorite stories are more layered and complex and make the Great Detective work for his conclusions.  In BAND it feels like Holmes sussed out the killer very soon and the rest of the story is him just padding it out for our (and Watson's) benefit.

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8 hours ago, Hikari said:

not sure our new member has come back since the OP.

They hung around for a few days, and presumably saw my response, but did not reply to it -- maybe because I told my own reactions to the story, rather than actually replying to their post?

8 hours ago, Hikari said:

I guess ACD was counting on the general ignorance of fauna when he came up with some of these titles.  The Lion's Mane is an actual species of large jellyfish that inhabits the English channel among other places.  Not having had the privilege of growing up in a marine area, I had no idea this animal existed but surely inhabitants of the English coast would be familiar?

That truly is odd!  Of course a lot of people aren't much into natural phenomena.  In one episode of Columbo (normally a top-notch detective series), he solves the case because he somehow recognizes a suspect's rash as specifically poison ivy rash, and because he knows that poison ivy doesn't grow in California, meaning that the suspect had been out of the state recently.  Fine and dandy -- except that a] poison-ivy rash (with which I am all too familiar) looks to me like a pretty typical contact-dermatitis rash, and b] the allergen in poison ivy is exactly the same substance as the allergen in poison oak, which does grow in California.  So I'm guessing whoever wrote that episode wasn't real up on natural stuff!  Maybe ACD himself fell into that category -- someone who comes across an intriguing fact and over-interprets it?

Or maybe he was facing a deadline?

 

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I didn't know that poison ivy doesn't grow in California so I learned something today.  Would the resulting rash really look that different from poison oak?  I'll leave that to Columbo.  Thankfully, I've never had either but I don't get to do much hiking in woodsy areas.

I think maybe ACD was surprised that the snake story was so popular.  He puts it in his own top 10 but not even he thought it was his best work.  Since he was writing to spec for magazine publication, he did have deadlines and also he was never that invested in his Holmes stories.  I think he probably did more research for his historical novels which he was convinced would make his reputation.  Holmes and Watson were just some ephemera that was going to end up in the bin or wrapping chips, so he thought.  Joke's on him, because apart from 'The White Company', nobody much remembers his adventuring novels.  He fancied himself the next Sir Walter Scott and I think Arthur was always rather miffed that he was best-known for the fictional detective he tried unsuccessfully to kill off.

'The LIon's Mane' is a pretty weak story as to the central 'crime' . . though as with a snake (or Jaws) I have a hard time blaming an animal for acting according to what comes naturally to it.  In BAND, the true villain is Grimsby Rylott and the snake is only his weapon of choice.  The Lion's Mane has no villain at all; just an unfortunate maritime accident.  But I quite like the Lion's Mane because Sherlock narrates it and it shows a decidedly gentler fuzzier side to him.  With no Watson around to show off for and be the 'thinking machine', Sherl is actually pretty down to earth in his retirement.   I think daily swims and chatting up the neighbors got boring quite soon and SH went back into harness in Her Majesty's Secret Service.  If ACD hadn't wanted to fold up the tent, we could have had lots more stories with Holmes.  As it is, we have to rely on other authors to carry on and invent new adventures for Sherl.

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5 minutes ago, Hikari said:

I didn't know that poison ivy doesn't grow in California ....

It turns out that Columbo wasn't entirely right about that, either.  The Eastern species doesn't occur west of the Rockies, but there's a species called Western poison ivy (which I never encountered, and so just found out about).

10 minutes ago, Hikari said:

Would the resulting rash really look that different from poison oak? 

I don't see how the rash could be any different at all, since the allergenic substance is precisely the same.

14 minutes ago, Hikari said:

... he was writing to spec for magazine publication, he did have deadlines and also he was never that invested in his Holmes stories.

Yes, it's a wonder the stories turned out to be so memorable anyway.  Just imagine how good they'd have been if he'd really been trying!

 

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On 6/27/2022 at 11:30 AM, Carol the Dabbler said:

It turns out that Columbo wasn't entirely right about that, either.  The Eastern species doesn't occur west of the Rockies, but there's a species called Western poison ivy (which I never encountered, and so just found out about).

I'm happy to see this addenda, as both my brother and my Dad had plenty of poison ivy rashes when we lived in California! I was beginning to question my memory!

Fortunately for me, I don't seem to be particularly susceptible to the stuff. Which is a good thing as there's a whole thickets of it in this area. But my poor brother gets a rash just by looking at it, practically. I've always found that odd, that different people have such different sensitivities to it. Maybe I just wear better socks. :D 

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36 minutes ago, Arcadia said:

... both my brother and my Dad had plenty of poison ivy rashes when we lived in California! I was beginning to question my memory!

Or it could have been poison-oak rash.  The plants look so similar that I knew what poison oak was the very first time I saw it -- the tips of its leaves are rounded whereas poison ivy leaves are pointed, but otherwise they look pretty much identical.  And their allergenic substance is identical.

40 minutes ago, Arcadia said:

Fortunately for me, I don't seem to be particularly susceptible to the stuff. Which is a good thing as there's a whole thickets of it in this area. But my poor brother gets a rash just by looking at it, practically. I've always found that odd, that different people have such different sensitivities to it. Maybe I just wear better socks. :D 

My father was like your brother, but my mother was immune to the stuff.  She would pull up ivy plants with her bare hands, to help Daddy avoid getting the rash.  Then one day she got a little patch of rash on her hand....

"Poison" ivy isn't actually poison, it's merely a very common allergen.  The first time anyone encounters any potential allergen, they don't react.  It may, as with Mom, take years of repeated exposure to provoke an allergic response.  But once they do develop an allergy, it's likely to become worse with repeated exposure.  So don't get too cocky!

 

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