‘I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life,’ Sherlock Holmes says at the start of ‘The Red-Headed League’. Holmes has a visitor, Jabez Wilson, whose story is, to my mind, the most appealing and memorable of all those in the canon. Conan Doyle is at his best here, starting with the detective’s opening deduction: ‘Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else’.
Wilson’s story conjures up a wonderful picture of those who have responded to the League’s advertisement: ‘Fleet Street was choked with red-headed folk, and Pope’s Court looked like a coster’s orange barrow’ (that last image is especially pleasing: a reminder of the freshness of Conan Doyle’s best prose). Wilson’s task, of copying out the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is wonderfully and unforgettably weird. He is well-paid for the work, thanks apparently to a generous bequest from an eccentric American millionaire. Once Holmes solves the riddle, he realises that Wilson is a pawn in a game devised by a ruthless criminal, and the story has a spooky and exciting climax in the cellar of a London bank.
The plot is so dazzling that several crime stories have made use of a similar idea. Years later, Conan Doyle himself wrote another Holmes mystery in a similar vein: ‘The Three Garridebs’ is great fun, but not quite as breathtaking as the earlier tale. ‘The Cat’s Paw’ by that gifted American writer Stanley Ellin features the same device. And when, ten years ago, I decided to write a Harry Devlin short story for the first time, I took my own cue from Holmes’ throwaway line: ‘Had there been women in the house, I should have suspected a mere vulgar intrigue’. The result was ‘The Boxer’, a tale set in contemporary Liverpool – yet specifically, albeit distantly, inspired by a Sherlock Holmes tale which never disappoints, however many times I re-read it.