The titular Red-Headed League is the literal red-herring of the story, and it symbolizes the consequences of getting too caught up in appearances. Criminals John Clay and Archie invented the league as a ruse to get Jabez Wilson out of the house for four hours every day. Clay (in disguise as Wilson’s assistance, Vincent Spaulding), shows Wilson a job advertised in the newspaper by the league, and encourages him to apply for the role. He claims that Wilson would be a perfect fit, thanks to his “fiery” red hair—the newspaper ad states that one must be red-headed to apply. The story is that the Red-Headed League was founded by an eccentric millionaire with red hair, and was intended to provide for men who are also red-headed. Thus, even the fictitious league is itself founded on appearances, which is an early indication that it is not to be trusted.
Sherlock Holmes is only able to solve the mystery because of his ability to see beyond the façade of the league. Sherlock alone realizes that John Clay and his accomplice, Archie, created the league as a distraction from the true nature of the crime. Through Holmes’ skillful deduction, Conan Doyle reminds the reader not to assume significance in something just because it might seem more interesting or ostentatious at first glance.
Red-Headed League Quotes in The Red-Headed League
“But we have to be careful, for we have twice been deceived by wigs and once by paint.”
“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”