Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in a rationalism. He was a doctor by trade and was therefore well-versed in the scientific method (a highly-rational approach to assessing facts), which he loosely applies to the practice of solving crimes. Furthermore, late-nineteenth-century London was gripped by high-profile crimes, such as the Jack the Ripper murders, and the police force was often dismissed for being ineffective at stopping or catching criminals. Conan Doyle therefore takes fire at the police force and offers up Sherlock Holmes’ rationality as a superior alternative. Once Holmes applies his meticulous logic to mysterious circumstances, it’s much easier to discern what has happened. He is the only character who is able to solve the bank robbery plot, and as such, Conan Doyle presents logic as the most superior method of crime-solving.
Holmes’ logical method is introduced early in the story, when he deduces several aspects of his client Jabez Wilson’s character by carefully observing his appearance. After just a few moments, Holmes is able to conclude that Wilson had done manual labor (his muscles are larger in one hand), that he is a Freemason (his breastpin bears the “arc-and-compass” symbol of the Freemasons), that he has been in China (he has a fish tattoo that “could only have been done in China” due to its unique pink staining), and that he has been writing prolifically (one of his cuffs is more worn than the other). When Wilson learns how Holmes managed to gather all of this information, he says, "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all." This is exactly the point that Conan Doyle is trying to make: applying logic to the world makes everything seem simple and obvious.
Holmes is then able to apply this technique to the business of solving the crime, demonstrating just how effective the powers of logic can be. He explains his strategy to his assistant, Watson, at the close of the story. 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 also mentioned that his assistant spent many hours in the cellar, and so Holmes realized that this must be the scene of the crime, and that Spaulding was likely digging a tunnel. When he went to visit the premises, Holmes carefully observed the nearby buildings and realized that there was a bank only meters away from the property, which was all the further explanation he needed to solve the crime. The assistant, who was really criminal mastermind John Clay, was digging a tunnel to the bank in order to steal thousands of pounds worth of gold, and Holmes was able to conclude as much by carefully observing the facts already available to him. By correctly applying the powers of logic, Holmes becomes the only person able to solve the crime.
By contrast, the other characters in the story are unable to solve the crime, because they do not apply the same meticulous methods as Holmes. Watson attempts to study Jabez Wilson as Sherlock does, for example, but gets too engrossed by Wilson’s bright red hair and fails to notice anything else as a result. He does not maintain a steady and rational outlook like Holmes. Later in the story, as Holmes taps the pavement with his stick (he is searching for the tunnel below ground), Watson is completely clueless as to Holmes’ intentions. By contrasting the ineptitude of Watson against the quick and rational mind of Sherlock, Conan Doyle highlights that a scientific method is far more effective for solving crimes.
Conan Doyle also employs imagery of darkness in order to demonstrate the ignorance of every character other than Holmes, including Watson, and Detective Jones, the policeman. As the men hide in the cellar at the close of the story, anticipating the criminals’ exit from the tunnel, the complete darkness of their surroundings represents the metaphorical ignorance of all characters other than Holmes. Even Jones, the policeman assigned to the case, has no clue what is going on. Jones is in fact only passingly mentioned in the story, as a “complete imbecile.” The police force is thus essentially made defunct in comparison to Holmes. Only Holmes, the superior crime-solver, knows that the criminals will emerge from the tunnel; everyone else is yet to reach this conclusion. When Holmes extinguishes his light, the others are left in “absolute darkness,” demonstrating that Holmes alone possesses the ability to solve the crime due to his quick but careful logic. His lamp is representative of the literal enlightenment that his rational methods can offer. As such, in contrast to the ignorance of every other character in the story, Holmes’ rationality is upheld on a pedestal of superiority. In this way, Conan Doyle underscores that logic and rationalism are the unequalled solutions to difficult problems, and that if the police would employ these methods, they might not be so ineffective as they currently are.
Logic and Rationalism ThemeTracker
Logic and Rationalism Quotes in The Red-Headed League
I took a good look at the man and endeavoured, after the fashion of my companion, to read the indications which might be presented by his dress or appearance. I did not gain very much, however, by my inspection. Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy gray shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. […] there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head.
“Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.”
“I am sure that you inquired your way merely in order that you might see him.”
“The knees of his trousers.”
“And what did you see?”
“What I expected to see.”
“I should like just to remember the order of the houses here. It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London. There is Mortimer's, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane's carriage-building depot. That carries us right on to the other block.”
[…] his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals.
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbours, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque.
“You may place considerable confidence in Mr. Holmes, sir,” said the police agent loftily. “He has his own little methods, which are, if he won't mind my saying so, just a little too theoretical and fantastic, but he has the makings of a detective in him. It is not too much to say that once or twice, as in that business of the Sholto murder and the Agra treasure, he has been more nearly correct than the official force.”
Holmes shot the slide across the front of his lantern and left us in pitch darkness—such an absolute darkness as I have never before experienced.