Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” is characterized by bizarre imagery. The concept of the titular Red-Headed League itself is utterly bizarre: it is not often that secret societies full of red-headed men are formed in London, or that someone is hired for a job purely because his hair is redder than that of hundreds of other applicants. The point of this story, however, is that the bizarre is often not as bizarre as it may seem. The everyday holds plenty of surprises, and shouldn’t be overlooked just because it appears to be initially less interesting. The reader eventually learns that the bizarre Red-Headed League in this story is merely a front for an ingenious, but significantly less unusual, bank robbery. The bizarreness of the league was merely a distraction. Sherlock Holmes is able to see through this distraction, realizing that it must be a front to get Jabez Wilson out of the house for several hours a day, so that his assistant, Vincent Spaulding (who is actually criminal mastermind John Clay), can dig a secret tunnel to then rob the bank. Holmes is able to solve the mystery because he does not become too invested in its extraordinary circumstances, even though he does admit to being entertained by them. In other words, Conan Doyle’s message is that it is important not to get caught up in the allure of the bizarre, as the bizarre is often of little significance. Instead, it is the more mundane, everyday occurrences that prove to be more important, if somewhat less exciting.
Conan Doyle makes a point of emphasizing the bizarre in this story, positioning it at the forefront of the narrative in order to demonstrate just how easy it is to get distracted by its appeal. In fact, the whole story is set up in order to trick the reader into thinking that the Red-Headed League is far more important than it actually is. Even the title of the story suggests that it is about a Red-Headed League, rather than a bank robbery. Much of the early narrative of the story concerns the events relayed by Jabez Wilson about his experiences with the league: the bizarre image of his lining up on Fleet Street with hundreds of other red-headed men, of having his own “blazing red” hair pulled to make sure that it wasn’t a wig, of writing out the Encyclopedia Britannica for four pounds a week. The whole story seems too fantastical to have any logical explanation, because this is exactly the case. The story has been completely fabricated as an elaborate façade for a commonplace bank robbery. By fooling the reader into thinking that the explanation must have something to do with the Red-Headed League itself, and then proving them completely wrong, Conan Doyle stresses the importance of not placing too much emphasis on the bizarre, as it can often point in the wrong direction entirely.
Sherlock Holmes is, fortunately, able to see past the allure of the bizarre, and focuses instead on the more banal details of the case in order to reach its conclusion. Conan Doyle demonstrates Holmes’ superior rationality by contrasting him against those around him who are too drawn in by the pull of the extraordinary. When Jabez Wilson is first introduced, for example, all Watson notices about him is his hair, claiming that “there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head.” In only searching for what is “remarkable” about the man, Watson has failed to notice some important details that Holmes, who is paying closer attention, manages to spot. Because he is not distracted by the bizarre, Holmes notices, for example, that Wilson has recently been doing a lot of writing, because one of his cuffs is more worn than the other. By concentrating on the everyday aspects of Wilson’s character, Holmes manages to deduce far more than Watson, who is only interested in the more striking aspects of Wilson’s appearance, and gets nowhere as a result.
Because he is not drawn in by Wilson’s flaming red hair, or by the story of the Red-Headed League, Holmes is able to look past the bizarre aspects of the story and discover the true nature of the crime. He explains to Watson that "it was perfectly obvious from the first that the only possible object of this rather fantastic business of the adver-tisement of the League, and the copying of the Encyclopaedia, must be to get this not over-bright pawnbroker out of the way for a number of hours every day.” With this observation, coupled with the knowledge that Wilson’s assistant spent hours each day in the cellar, Holmes was able to logically assume that a tunnel was being dug to the neighboring bank, in preparation for a robbery. The tale of the Red-Headed League was simply a ruse to put Wilson off the scent of the crime. Sometimes the most bizarre of occurrences have the simplest of explanations, or as Sherlock himself claims: “As a rule, […] the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be.” Because of his ability to see past the bizarre and focus instead on the everyday details, Sherlock is able to get to the heart of the matter and solve the crime.
The Bizarre vs. The Mundane ThemeTracker
The Bizarre vs. The Mundane 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.
“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.”