“In glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace…”
The Speckled Band (I skip The Blue Carbuncle, of course, until next Christmas Eve) is not quite a retcon, but it does at the very least go back in time – indeed, chronologically it’s the fourth recorded Holmes adventure. Going back to 1883, when Holmes and Watson still shared rooms at Baker Street, it is a dynamic story with a classic scene in which Watson professes ignorance of the finer points of Holmes’s method. This shifting back in time thus gives Conan Doyle an easy way to startle both Watson and by extension the reader with Holmes’s unusual knack for finding reason in the absurd.
Indeed, like a cheating Cluedo player, Holmes claims at the end of the story, once the mystery’s solution has been revealed to us all, that he knew all along how it would end. The entirety of the investigation is framed (in something which is not quite a retcon) as Holmes confirming his own suspicions: “I had come to these conclusions before I had ever entered his room,” Holmes declares of his search of the perpetrator’s study. And the reader, too, might have a sense of the familiar.
As the BBC recently noted, mystery fans have much to thank Edgar Allen Poe for. In 1841, he wrote the famous short story The Murders In The Rue Morgue, featuring his celebrated French detective, Dupin. As the BBC story notes, Dupin is undeniably the model for Sherlock Holmes – undeniably not just because they are so similar, but because Conan Doyle admitted as much, The Speckled Band, as much as any story he ever wrote, is the Scotsman’s homage to his forebear.
Famously, The Murders In The Rue Morgue has as its ‘criminal’ an orangutan belonging to a sailor who has allowed it to escape. In The Speckled Band, Holmes encounters a doctor with a collection of animals from India (including a baboon, briefly seen roaming across the doctor’s grounds at Stoke Moran near Leatherhead). Unlike its sister story, however, The Speckled Band at least plays fair – all the details are there up front, although it must be said that to join the dots is not easy without, like Holmes, first seeing the picture they form.
The Speckled Band, then, is a homage. But it’s also more interesting than that, a stately home murder (the House of Stoke Moran belongs to one of the oldest families in England) which features no gathering of the suspects and a faint dose of the surreal. Admirably, Conan Doyle acknowledges his debt without being slavish, and even by improving upon his inspiration. It is curious that Conan Doyle cited it as his favourite of the stories, since The Speckled Band is not one of his tightest or best researched mysteries. But it is, in all fairness, one of his most memorable.