In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Sherlock Holmes solves a case in which the villain and the murder weapon have ties to India. The story is set in Victorian England, a period when the British empire was expanding its colonial reach around the world, and Doyle’s conflation of India with the sinister shows the anxiety of white Britons about the foreignness and otherness that came into their lives as a result of living in a more interconnected world.
Many of the story’s sinister elements have ties to India. For example, after living and working in India for a long stint, Dr. Roylott develops a violent temper. Although he was an angry figure before living in India, Helen Stoner believes that his temper was “intensified by his long residence in the tropics.” Dr. Roylott also has a fondness for many Indian exports. He smokes Indian cigars and, most importantly, collects exotic animals. Roylott’s wandering baboon and cheetah are an ambient threat that can be felt throughout the manor, and the swamp adder, “the deadliest snake in India,” is proven to be the murder weapon in the case. At the end of the story, Holmes claims that he deduced that the snake was used in the killing because the idea of using such a venomous animal would obviously “occur to a clever and ruthless man who had had an Eastern training,” thus giving non-Western medicine and science a tinge of danger or evil.
The “wandering gipsies” that are living in encampments on the forested land around the Stoke Moran Manor are another element of the sinister exotic. While the gipsies are European, Roma people are ancestrally from the Indian subcontinent, and their nomadic lifestyle has always made them outsiders in Europe. Just like the dangerous foreign animals, then, the reader is led to believe that the exotic gipsies could easily be responsible for the death of Julia Stoner. The story’s titular “speckled band,” a phrase which Julia utters as she dies in Helen’s arms, is first presumed to refer to the band of gipsies. This confusion of the word “band,” and the general unspoken racial prejudice among the characters in the story, causes Sherlock Holmes to mistakenly follow it as a lead early in the case. The sinister gipsies are also meant to reflect poorly on Roylott, as the reader learns early on that Dr. Roylott “had no friends at all save the wandering gipsies, and he would accept in return the hospitality of their tents, wandering away with them sometimes for weeks on end.” With no friends of his former social class and stature, it is implied, Roylott can only associate with this marginal community, which is meant to enhance the reader’s suspicion that Roylott might be sinister and unhinged.
By populating the story with a variety of exotic elements—people, animals, and objects—Doyle is trying to create a setting that is both strange and sinister. In doing this, he is largely playing off of the racial and cultural anxieties that the average white British reader of the time would likely have been feeling in relation to the country’s expanding reach around the world and the potential consequences that this new globalization might have at home.
Exoticism Quotes in The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbours, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat, he shut himself up in his house and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path. Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics.
“Tell me, Helen,” said she, “have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?”
At first I thought that she had not recognised me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, “Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!”
“It is a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; “the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten. Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.”