Decoding the Subtext: The Red Circle
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Red Circle in September of 1902. Watson does not give us a date, but as Baring-Gould dates this case after The Adventure of the Illustrious client, and as Watson is clearly living in Baker Street, we must question Baring-Gould's date. Watson also refers to the gloom of a London winter evening, suggesting that Baring-Gould's month is also incorrect. Finally, the inclusion of Inspector Gregson, who appears only in the earlier Canon, suggests a date even before the hiatus (or, pending that, shortly after Holmes' return). Indeed, it is your author's opinion that the case took place during the winter of 1895. The story was first published in March of 1911.
Mrs. Warren, a local landlady, seeks Holmes' aid in solving the mystery of her mysterious lodger. He arrived several weeks ago, and yet she has not seen the man since the first night when he went out briefly, only to return late in the evening. He rings when he wants his supper, and communicates all the rest of his desires by printing single words in pencil on torn slips of paper. Although he is paying her double the rent, Mrs. Warren is at her wits end, the man's pacing driving her to distraction. Having heard her case, Holmes automatically assumes a substitution has been made. With that in mind, he arranges to get a look at Mrs. Warren's lodger, only to discover that he is, in fact, a she. Armed with this new knowledge, Holmes is able to put the pieces of the case together (with a little help from the agony column of the Daily Gazette). His insight will lead him to uncover two desperate refuges, hiding from a terrible secret organization known as the Red Circle.
The Adventure of the Red Circle begins midway through Holmes' interview with a client, Mrs. Warren. Mrs. Warren has some concerns regarding her lodger, and wishes for Holmes to look into the matter and then instruct her on what to do. Holmes, reluctantly, agrees.
As Mrs. Warren tells her tale, Holmes' interest is peaked, and although he can do nothing at this point, he does agree to take on the case. This leisurely start is quite interesting, for it allows Holmes and Watson plenty of time for relaxation. Indeed, the very next morning Watson tells us:
So it proved; for in the morning I found my friend standing on the hearthrug with his back to the fire and a smile of complete satisfaction upon his face.
Here, in addition to Holmes' smug satisfaction (which is suggestive in and of itself) we are able to loosely pinpoint a date. It is obvious that Watson is living in Baker Street, just as it is obvious that relations between the two are quite intimate. The fact that Holmes has descended from Watson's room before Watson's waking, however, speaks to a slightly earlier date. We can safely say that Holmes has returned from his hiatus, as we are no longer witness to the tentativeness found pre-hiatus, and yet, it is obviously still quite early in this new phase of their relationship, for Holmes is feeling quite pleased with himself, and yet, still has enough sense of mind to vacate Watson's rooms before Mrs. Hudson brings up breakfast.
Sadly, Watson is not given the chance to demonstrate his own smug satisfaction (and we cannot doubt that Watson was quite pleased by Holmes' reaction) for they are soon interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Warren. She tells the story of her husband's abduction that very morning, and of how he was driven an hour outside of town only to be dumped on the side of the road.
Holmes eventually agrees to pay Mrs. Warren a visit in hopes of seeing her lodger for himself. It is here that we are given additional evidence for Watson living in Baker Street, for, having witnessed Mrs. Warren's lodger first hand, Holmes states:
"I think, Watson, we can discuss this business better in our own quarters."
Holmes' reference to our own quarters leaves little doubt as to where Watson is living.
Having returned to Baker Street, Holmes, searching the agony columns, finds the reference he is looking for and is able to deduce that something of importance is to happen that very evening. With this in mind, Holmes and Watson return to Mrs. Warren's house where they lie in wait for a promised signal. The signal comes, but before it can be completed, the candle is put out and the house across the street falls into darkness.
Quite alarmed, Holmes heads out to investigate, only to discover that Inspector Gregson has the building under surveillance. Their conversation, one must agree, is quite fascinating:
"Holmes!" he cried.
"Why, Gregson!" said my companion as he shook hands with the Scotland Yard detective. "Journeys end with lovers' meetings. What brings you here?"
Curious, is it not, that Holmes should think to quote from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. One wonders why Holmes chose to greet Inspector Gregson with that particular quote. Oddly enough, this is not the first time Holmes has employed this quote. In fact, it is used during The Empty House (further evidence that this story should be given an earlier date, for if it did occur shortly after The Empty House, and Holmes had just seen (or read) Twelfth Night, then one can easily understand his desire to quote from it). One must question whether Inspector Gregson is an old lover of Holmes. Is this, perhaps, why he is not seen in the later Canon? Did Watson put his foot down and request that Holmes not associate with his exes?
It is not long after this strange meeting that Holmes realizes that he and Scotland Yard are working at cross-purposes. Scotland Yard, along with a Pinkerton detective, are searching for a man named Black Gorgiano. As it turns out, Holmes is investigating a couple by the name of Lucca, who are fleeing from Black Gorgiano. As they head inside, they discover the body of Gorgiano, and it is not long after that that Holmes signals for Mrs. Lucca and finally learns the reason she has been hiding inside Mrs. Warren's lodging house.
As the case comes to a close, Holmes, turning to Watson, states:
"Well, Watson, you have one more specimen of the tragic and grotesque to add to your collection. By the way, it is not eight o'clock, and a Wagner night at Covent Garden! If we hurry, we might be in time for the second act."
We see in this final statement two noteworthy comments. The first is Holmes statement that Watson has earned a story to add to his chronicles. Again, this is indicative of an earlier, yet post-hiatus, date, for Watson does at this point have a collection. We will, of course, recall that Holmes has forbidden Watson from publishing his cases, and yet, we cannot doubt that Watson filed his notes very neatly away, awaiting the day when Holmes once again allowed him to bring out his pen.
We turn next to Holmes' invitation to dinner and a show. A more clear date we have never seen, and yet it is quite interesting that this case should end with Holmes and Watson seeking out a night on the town. One must speculate, then, that this case occurred early in their relationship, for what else would warrant such courtship? Clearly, Holmes is putting some effort into his wooing of Watson, and clearly Watson is quite thrilled by said wooing.
While not definitive, when added to the evidence found elsewhere in this story, it is quite safe to assume that Holmes and Watson's relationship was still relatively new, and yet, quite serious. Therefore, a date of 1895 is quite probable. Holmes has returned from the dead, Watson has returned to Baker Street, and they are both still learning the ins and outs of one another, and their newfound intimacy.