John Watson arrives at Sherlock Holmes’ apartment to find him talking to an elderly man with “fiery red hair.” Holmes seems very excited, and invites Watson inside to meet the man, Jabez Wilson, and to hear his story. Holmes encourages Watson to listen by reminding him that he shares his love of “all that is bizarre.” Holmes explains to Watson that the red-headed man has come to him with one of the most unusual cases he has heard in a long time.
The idea of “the bizarre” features prominently in this story, and the figure of Jabez Wilson, with his shock of “fiery red hair,” is the first hint of this. The story implies that this man, who has such extraordinary hair, will have an equally extraordinary tale to tell, and Holmes and Watson both admit to taking great pleasure in such bizarre instances.
Watson attempts to figure out some aspects of Wilson’s character by observing his appearance, as Holmes usually does. However, Watson does not manage to deduce very much. The only “remarkable” aspect of Wilson’s appearance, Watson claims, is the man’s “blazing red head.” He overlooks the smaller details of Wilson’s appearance, such as a small “bit of metal dangling down as an ornament” on his waistcoat.
Watson fails in his attempt to deduce the character of Wilson because he is unable to see anything beyond Wilson’s fantastic red hair. Watson only pays attention to the “remarkable,” when he should actually be paying attention to the small, ordinary details of Wilson’s appearance. If Watson had looked more closely at the piece of metal, for instance, he might have realized its significance as a Chinese coin—a detail Holmes’ careful eye picks up on.
Holmes notices what Watson is doing and smiles at him, before revealing his own conclusions about Wilson. Wilson, Holmes claims, has practiced manual labor (one hand is more muscular than the other), is a Freemason (he wears a Freemason logo pin), and has spent time in China (he has a particular Chinese fish tattoo on his wrist, and a Chinese coin on his waistcoat). Wilson is amazed when Holmes reveals his deductions, and questions how he knew all of this. Holmes explains his powers of simple observation.
Unlike Watson, Holmes is not distracted by Wilson’s “remarkable” red hair, and thus is able to pick up on the tiny details of the man’s appearance. In doing so, Homes is able to extract these varied facts about Wilson’s character, demonstrating his remarkable powers of logical deduction. Holmes notices the same piece of “metal” as Watson, for instance, but correctly identifies it as a Chinese coin rather than dismissing it as a random, ornamental “bit of metal.”
Wilson thinks Holmes is impressive, but also notes how simple Holmes’ technique seems once it has been explained. He thought Holmes was being clever, but now sees that “there was nothing in it, after all.”
Wilson begins telling his story by producing a newspaper advertisement. The advert is a job listing for the Red-Headed League, and it calls for a red-headed man to apply for an unspecified role paying four pounds a week. Watson is amazed. With a laugh, Holmes remarks that it is a “little off the beaten track.”
This strange newspaper advertisement is another example of the bizarre in the story. Holmes finds great amusement in the ad, but Watson is completely dumbfounded. This demonstrates the differing attitudes of the two men: Holmes is entertained by the bizarre, but maintains his rationality, whereas Watson is completely taken aback by it and allows it to distract him.
Wilson then explains a bit about himself: he is a pawnbroker, owns a business in Coburg Square, and has an assistant who is luckily willing to work for half wages. Holmes asks him further questions about the assistant, and Wilson explains that his name is Vincent Spaulding. Wilson can’t tell how old Spaulding is, but he knows that Spaulding is extremely bright, and spends a lot of time on his photography, developing his photos for hours down in Wilson’s cellar.
Holmes seems very interested in the assistant from the moment that Wilson mentions that Spaulding works for half wages—why would an intelligent and capable man willingly work for less than he deserves? The next clue is that Spaulding is of unspecified age, as this shows that Wilson actually knows very little about his assistant. The detail of Spaulding spending a lot of time in the cellar will also be important later in the story.
Wilson then explains that it was in fact Spaulding who showed him the advertisement for the Red-Headed League in the newspaper, and who encouraged him to apply for the job. Spaulding explained that a red-headed American millionaire founded the league as a way to help other red-headed men by providing them with easy jobs that pay well. Spaulding claimed that Wilson was bound to get the job due to his “real bright, blazing, fiery red” hair, which would certainly set him apart from the other red-headed applicants.
It seems even more suspicious that Spaulding should be so eager to have Wilson employed in another job, which will keep him out of the house for several hours a day. This implies that Spaulding wants the time to work on something else while unsupervised—possibly in the cellar.
When Wilson and Spaulding arrived for the job interview on Fleet Street, the whole neighborhood was packed with red-headed men: “Every shade of colour they were—straw, lemon, orange, brick, Irish-setter, liver, clay; but, as Spaulding said, there were not many who had the real vivid flame-coloured tint.” Although there were hundreds of men applying for the job, Spaulding took Wilson straight to the front and into the office, because he claimed that Wilson had a unique shade of red hair.
The image of a well-known London street completely filled with red-headed men is the next instance of the bizarre. It seems even more strange that Spaulding should be so assured in taking Wilson right to the front of the line—he clearly wants to ensure that Wilson secures this job.
Once inside the office, the employer, a man named Duncan Ross, hired Wilson for the job almost immediately. First, though, he pulled Wilson’s hair to make sure that it was real, explaining that “we have twice been deceived by wigs and once by paint.”
Wilson thinks that he is hired simply because of his fiery red hair, but again, it seems very suspicious that he should instantly be offered the job when there are hundreds of other applicants. Ross pulling Wilson’s hair also seems odd, and is perhaps a sign that these men are not to be trusted, if they can’t trust anyone themselves.
Duncan Ross explains that the job is simply to copy out the encyclopedia for four hours every day, at four pounds a week. Wilson is never to leave the office during these hours, or he will be immediately fired. Wilson is happy to take the job.
This seems a remarkably easy—and trivial—job for such high pay, but Wilson is desperate for money and is happy to take the position without questioning its validity. The requirements also seem suspicious, but Wilson does not seem to notice that someone wants him out of his house for four hours every day.
Wilson began his job, and at first, Duncan Ross came into the office several times each morning. This gradually decreased, until soon, Ross wasn’t coming by at all. Then, this morning, after eight weeks of work, Wilson arrived only to find a note on the door claiming that the Red-Headed League had been disbanded.
This part of the story makes Duncan Ross also seem fairly suspicious as a character. A reader might begin to sense a connection between Duncan Ross and Vincent Spaulding.
Wilson went around the neighboring offices, hoping to find some explanation, but found that no one had heard of Duncan Ross or the Red-Headed League. The landlord didn’t know a Duncan Ross but said a solicitor named William Morris was using the office space temporarily until his own office was ready. Wilson attempted to track him down using the forwarding address that Morris provided to the landlord, but the address was for an artificial knee-cap factory, where no one had heard of Duncan Ross or William Morris.
This turn of events seems to confirm Ross’s criminality, but the circumstances are still very mysterious. It is perhaps not coincidental that his fake address leads to an artificial knee-cap factory. Not only is this detail completely bizarre, it is also a hint, given the fact that the knee-caps are artificial, that everything is not as it seems.
Holmes promises Wilson that he will solve his case, but first asks a few further questions about the assistant, Vincent Spaulding. When he hears that Spaulding has a “splash of acid upon his forehead,” Holmes sits up in excitement and claims that he had assumed as much. Holmes then sends Wilson away.
Holmes clearly thinks that the assistant is the key to solving the crime. He reacts with such excitement because he clearly recognizes Spaulding from the description. As the reader will later find out, the detail of the acid splash makes Holmes realize that Spaulding is in fact the famous criminal, John Clay.
Holmes asks Watson what he thinks of the case, but Watson is completely dumbfounded by the whole story. Holmes says that there is probably a simply explanation, as “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be.”
Holmes wants to go out for the afternoon to think, and asks Watson to come with him. They are going to a concert, but first, they visit Saxe-Coburg Square, the address of Jabez Wilson. Holmes inspects the property carefully, even hitting the surrounding pavement with his walking stick several times.
Holmes inspects the property carefully as he tries to assess the nature of the crime. He taps on the pavement, the reader will later learn, because he suspects that there is a tunnel beneath it.
Finally, Holmes knocks on the door, and a “bright-looking, clean-shaven young fellow” answers. Holmes asks for directions to the Strand and then leaves. As they walk away, Holmes tells Watson that the man who answered the door was Wilson’s assistant, Spaulding. Holmes remarks that Spaulding is the “fourth smartest man in London.” Holmes explains to Watson that he had wished to observe the “knees of [Spaulding’s] trousers,” which Watson finds confusing. He is also confused as to why Holmes “beat the pavement” with his stick.
Vincent Spaulding, later revealed as master criminal John Clay, is introduced as a respectable-looking figure. It is only when Holmes refers to him as the “assistant” that the reader realizes Spaulding was the man who answered the door. It is also made especially obvious here that Watson is lagging several steps behind Holmes in solving the crime. Holmes checks Spaulding’s trousers to see if he has been digging, and beats the pavement to check for a tunnel—two connections Watson fails to make.
Holmes then walks around the property and observes the neighboring buildings. He explains to Watson that he wishes to remember their exact order, and notices, amongst other buildings, the City and Suburban Bank. Holmes is content, and he and Watson leave for the concert.
Holmes asks Watson to meet him at ten that night at Holmes’ apartment on Baker Street, and to bring his revolver. Watson still has no idea what is going on but trusts Holmes completely, for Holmes “saw clearly not only what had happened but what was about to happen.”
Later that night, Holmes and Watson reconvene. They are joined by Detective Jones, the policeman assigned to the case, and Mr. Merryweather, the manager of the City and Suburban Bank. As the men make their way to the bank, Holmes explains that Mr. Merryweather could save 30,000 pounds this evening, and that Jones could catch a master criminal, John Clay. He explains that Clay is the grandson of a royal duke, and has attended both Eton and Oxford. Holmes declares that Clay’s “brain is as cunning as his fingers.”
From these discussions, the reader begins to get a real sense of the nature of the crime. Clearly, the scheme is to rob 30,000 pounds from Merryweather’ s bank, and the person responsible will be John Clay. The mention of Clay’s “royal blood” explains his respectable-looking visage. Perhaps were he not criminally inclined, he would be a respectable young man.
Merryweather leads the party to the cellar of the bank, which is filled with crates of French gold, yet to be unpacked. Holmes tells everyone to be quiet and still, especially Merryweather, who is currently tapping the floor and making too much noise. Holmes tells him that: “You have already imperiled the whole success of our expedition. Might I beg that you would have the goodness to sit down upon one of those boxes, and not to interfere?”
The narrative gradually leads the reader further towards an understanding of what is really going on, just as the men who are being led down into the cellar must be experiencing a similar realization. As he reprimands Merryweather, Holmes appears to be very much in control of the situation. He knows exactly what he’s doing, whereas Merryweather is presented as being naïve and incompetent.
As Mr. Merryweather taps on the floor of the bank cellar to demonstrate to Holmes how thick the floor is, he notices how hollow it suddenly sounds. Holmes bends down and starts meticulously examining each stone in the floor with his magnifying glass.
The hollow-sounding floor implies that there is a tunnel lying beneath it. Holmes is clearly aware of this, and attempts to find the tunnel exit on the floor with his magnifying glass.
Holmes at last extinguishes his lamp, telling everyone to wait silently in the dark cellar for the criminals to emerge. Watson claims that he has never experienced such “absolute darkness.”
The “absolute darkness” of the cellar represents the relative ignorance of all characters other than Holmes. His light represents his enlightened position, and when this is extinguished, the others are left both physically and metaphorically “in the dark” about the case and the crime that’s about to unfold.
A brief flash illuminates the dark cellar, and a hand emerges from the floor, pushing a large stone aside. Through this “gaping hole” appears a “clean-cut, boyish face.” The boy, later revealed as John Clay, hoists himself up through the hole and calls down to his accomplice, Archie, to see if he has “the chisel and the bags.”
The owner of this “clean-cut, boyish face” is clearly the same man who earlier answered the door when Holmes asked for directions. It is John Clay, who was earlier disguised as Vincent Spaulding. Clay is instantly incriminated by his call for “the chisel,” as it becomes very clear that he had some part in digging this tunnel and intending to rob the bank.
Suddenly, Holmes springs from his hiding place and grabs the boy. The boy’s accomplice, Archie, plunges back down the hole, as Detective Jones fails to catch hold of him. Holmes addresses the captured boy as John Clay, and tells him that he has “no chance at all.” Clay answers “with the utmost coolness,” saying that at least his accomplice got away successfully. Holmes says this isn’t the case—there are three police officers waiting on the other side of the escape route. Clay appears impressed and “compliment[s]” Holmes for being so careful and thorough. Holmes offers his compliments as well, declaring that Clay’s “red-headed idea was very new and effective.”
Holmes is the clear victor of this scene, as he is the only person to successfully capture one of the criminals. Detective Jones fails to hold on to Archie, but fortunately Holmes has the situation under control. He has already stationed three other policemen at the only other exit to the tunnel. This thoroughness earns Clay’s respect, just as Clay’s brilliant plan earns Holmes’ respect. Through this interaction, the story implies that intelligence is always something that must be duly rewarded, even if it is intended for criminal purposes.
Jones pulls out a pair of handcuffs, and Clay balks at the idea of Jones touching him with his “filthy hands.” Haughtily, Clay declares that he has “royal blood in [his] veins.” He also tells the men that they must address him as “sir,” and remember to say “please.” With a laugh, Jones asks the “sir” to “please” accompany him to the police station. Clay looks satisfied, and, after a “sweeping bow,” follows Jones.
It is perhaps interesting that Clay still assumes superiority over the policemen because of his royal bloodline, even though he has just been arrested. This may be a veiled reference to royals thinking they are above the law, as the real Prince Edward VII was at the time involved in various illegal scandals.
Holmes ends the story by explaining to Watson how he managed to solve the crime. Firstly, Holmes realized that the Red-Headed League must simply be a ruse intended to keep Wilson out of the shop for several hours a day. He was suspicious of Wilson’s assistant, Spaulding, because he was happy to be paid half wages, and so correctly assumed that he must be the culprit. Wilson mentioned that the assistant spent many hours in the cellar, so Holmes realized that this must be the scene of the crime, and that Spaulding was likely digging a tunnel. Holmes then identified Spaulding as the notorious criminal John Clay by the acid splash on his forehead, as Holmes had known of Clay beforehand.
This final passage reveals how truly ingenious Holmes has been throughout the story. Simply through his keen powers of observation and rationality, Holmes was able to solve the mystery. It certainly helped that he was able to overlook the façade of the Red-Headed League, realizing that it was only intended as a ruse. The other intellectually inferior characters in the story, such as Watson, got so caught up in the bizarre circumstances of the case that they were unable to see its logical solution.
When he went to visit Wilson’s property, Holmes carefully observed the nearby buildings and realized that there was a bank only meters away from the property, which was likely the target. Holmes then wished to observe Clay’s knees, so he knocked on the door to take a look at Clay. The knees of Clay’s trousers were, as Holmes suspected, thoroughly worn down, signifying that he had been doing a lot of digging recently. Since Wilson’s job had just ended, meaning that he was no longer required to be out of the house, Holmes realized the tunnel must be finished, and that the robbery was likely to take place that very night.
The fact that Holmes wished to catch a glimpse of John Clay with the specific intention of looking at his knees is testament to Holmes’ unwavering rationality. Whereas Watson, and indeed the reader, were probably preoccupied by the unexpectedly bright and “clean-shaven” face of the young man, Holmes was so focused on the case that he did not get distracted for one moment by the man’s face. He wished only to look at the knees, as only the knees would provide the answers he needed in order to solve the crime.
Watson praises Holmes for his remarkable work, declaring that Holmes “reasoned it out beautifully.” Holmes brushes off Watson’s lavish praise, claiming that he just solved a “little problem” that may be “of some little use.” In French, Holmes quotes Gustave Flaubert, stating, “The man is nothing, the work—all.”
Watson is always full of praise and admiration for Holmes, and although sometimes Holmes is happy to accept it, here he is especially modest. It is this modesty and selflessness that is particularly praised in this story, in contrast to the greed and entitlement of the criminals.