I had called upon my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year, and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman, with fiery red hair.
The Red-Headed League is not a flawless story. Just a few pages on from that opening sentence, Watson declares that April 27th was just two months prior, placing the story in early summer rather than autumn. There’s something lazy about it, then, and yet this early tale remained a favourite of many, including the author himself. In part, this is no doubt down to its memorable conceit: a pawnbroker responds to a newspaper advertisement calling for red-headed men to attend a building on Fleet Street. He is asked to work at the organisation’s office for four hours a day, for the purposes of copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica, and never to leave his room whilst he does so. For this, he is paid four pounds a week. When, after 30 pounds’ worth of copying, the office is closed down unceremoniously, the pawnbroker visits Holmes.
“For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself,” Holmes declares whilst introducing the case to Watson, “which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” Jabez Wilson, the pawnbroker in question, is nevertheless a strange invention indeed: he is something of a caricature, with fiery red hair, a plump figure, and a credulous disposition. Watson explicitly associates him with London tradesman, whom are for him all of a type: “obese, pompous, and slow.” Again, the laziness of all this is unquestionable, but it nevertheless makes for just the entertaining diversion Holmes requires.
The great detective is indeed in exuberant mood here, perhaps reflecting the at first amusing and subsequently relatively simple nature of the problem with which he is presented. Jones of Scotland Yard, called into the case by Holmes, remarks archly of the consulting investigator that, “He has the makings of a detective in him.” And there’s something in this: with his three pipe frippery, his concert sojourns, and his laughing in the face of clients, Holmes is here just the amateur he will later accuse the Met’s finest of being. No crime is committed in this story, though Holmes admittedly narrowly prevents one. In the previous tale, too, no law was broken. Can Holmes yet properly be called a detective?
Perhaps not. Rather, he is a thrillseeker of sorts, a problem-solver, a dilettante. “It saved me from ennui,” he shrugs of Wilson’s problem once it has been dispatched with. “Alas, I already feel it closing in on me!” The congratulations he gives to his adversary here, the Eton-educated criminal genius John Clay (“the fourth smartest man in London”), suggests little of the detective’s calling as other mystery writers – and other mystery writers’ characters – may have understood it. In truth, it shares more with the ego of the detectives featured in David Simon’s cutting-edge, and thoroughly unsentimental, The Wire, in which the police are seen to be more interested in showing themselves smarter than the criminals than they are in the evils of the crimes themselves.
There is the makings of a great detective in The Red-Headed League; if he is not yet that, the early Sherlock Holmes is still perhaps ahead of his time.