The Red-Headed League

The Red-Headed League Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Red-Headed League. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His early life was not glamorous, but thanks to the support of wealthier relatives, he was sent to England for his education. He ended up studying medicine in Edinburgh, and would remain in the medical field throughout his life. Alongside his medical career, however, Arthur was a prolific writer. Not only did he write four Sherlock Holmes novels, and over fifty Holmes short stories, he also wrote seven historical novels, nine general novels, five narratives, multiple collections of short stories, and several stage works. His interests were extremely varied. He was a keen sportsman, trying his hand at boxing, football, cricket and golf.  He was also a very active political campaigner and justice advocate, and a famous proponent of Spiritualism. He was also interested in history, particularly the Napoleonic era, which many of his literary works reflect. He was the father of five children, and was married firstly to Louisa Hawkins, and then to Jean Leckie, following Louisa’s death in 1906. Conan Doyle passed away of a heart attack in 1930, at his home in East Sussex. His last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.”
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Historical Context of The Red-Headed League

The modern police force was formed in England in 1829. Of course, by the time of Conan Doyle’s writing in 1891, people were more used to the police, but the detectives of the age still weren’t all that respected. They were considered fairly incompetent, especially in the face of major unsolved crimes such as the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s. This is why the Sherlock Holmes stories present the police as being quite inept at their jobs, and offer up Holmes’ rationality as a superior alternative. Another potentially relevant historical circumstance is that of the Royal family at the time, or more specifically, Prince Edward VII (later King Edward VII, and known affectionately as Bertie). Bertie was Queen Victoria’s eldest son, and although he was popular with the public, he was involved in numerous scandals in the late nineteenth century. The Royal Baccarat Scandal, for example, was a British gambling scandal involving the prince in 1891, the same year that “The Red-Headed League” was written. Bertie was also allegedly involved in a scandal involving a homosexual brothel that employed young boys. He undoubtedly led a wild and scandalous existence, and it seems as though this might be referred to in the story. The crime takes place in Saxe-Coburg Square, which is a reference to the royal surname, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. John Clay claims that he is royalty when he is caught, and demands not to be man-handled. Thus, the young criminal Clay may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the illegal tendencies of the real Prince Edward at the time.

Other Books Related to The Red-Headed League

The Sherlock Holmes stories are an early example of the detective genre, but an even earlier example can be found in Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Dupin is fairly similar to Holmes, in that he is fairly astute in his deductions as an outsider, but he is by no means the professional and rational detective that Holmes is. The same is true of Holmes’ English predecessors in the detective genre, such as Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Cuff is again not nearly as rational or as professional as Holmes. In fact, Holmes’ rationality could be a direct influence of the scientific texts of the age, which employed a more methodical approach to writing than traditional fiction. Science and literature were much more closely connected at the time, and seminal scientific texts, such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, were accessible to both a literary and a scientific audience. The same could perhaps be said of Sherlock Holmes: the stories are a way of making the scientific method of problem-solving available to the wider literary public.
Key Facts about The Red-Headed League
  • Full Title: “The Red-Headed League”
  • When Written: 1891
  • Where Written: Europe
  • When Published: 1891
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Detective fiction, crime fiction
  • Setting: London, England
  • Climax: Sherlock Holmes captures John Clay in the cellar of the bank.
  • Antagonist: John Clay
  • Point of View: First person and third person

Extra Credit for The Red-Headed League

A Familiar Figure. The character of Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Conan Doyle’s college professors, Joseph Bell. The resemblance was significant enough that Conan Doyle’s famous friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote to him to ask: “can this be my old friend Joe Bell?”

Attempted Murder. Arthur Conan Doyle grew so disenchanted with Sherlock Holmes that he tried to kill him off in the 1893 story “The Final Problem.” The public outcry was so extreme that Conan Doyle had no choice but to bring him back to life again.