‘Well, Mrs. Warren, I cannot see that you have any particular cause for uneasiness, nor do I understand why I, whose time is of some value, should interfere in the matter.’
The Red Circle does not, then, start promisingly. But in one of those telling remarks Watson specialises in, we learn the reason Holmes quickly gives in: “[He] was accessible upon the side of flattery, and also, to do him justice, upon the side of kindliness.” It’s this kindly side of Holmes which is often forgotten – though it was an essential part of Jeremy Brett’s characterisation of the master – and it suffuses the narrative. Ultimately, for all his no doubt sincere insistence that, “Education, Gregson, education,” is the reason for his involvement in the ensuing case, his concern for Mrs. Warren – and ultimately for her lodger (in a room full of detectives, he is the one who reads that person their rights) – are at least as prominent.
Another of Conan Doyle’s globe-trotting extravaganzas, this one works where others have failed because embedded in the story is the reason we must remain in the dark – Holmes is, too. He is investigating only a very small part of the mystery, and when we discover late in the adventure that other detectives have been working on the same case from a different angle, there is a moment of satisfaction: here is a real case, “different threads, but leading up to the same tangle.” Each of the players – including the lodger – now brings their own part of the puzzle to the story, and the solution – though as unsolvable for the reader as ever – has the illusion of being earned as a result.
This is not to say that Holmes deduces incorrectly – of course he doesn’t – but it is to say that the reader can make the same deductions about the part of the case that is visible. This coupled with some lovely Holmesian moments – his despairing perusal of the banality of the agony columns, an insistence upon a spot of post-mystery Wagner – makes for a light but entertaining story, which is all the better for its brevity and sense of pace. Conan Doyle at times achieves just the right mix of his recurring ingredients, and The Red Circle is one such refined recipe. Not a new dish, but no less the flavoursome for that.