Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Red-Headed League


The Red-Headed League is perhaps the most difficult of all the cases to date. Baring-Gould dates the case in October of 1887. Watson, however, tells us that the case occurred in autumn of last year, and given that The Red-Headed League was published in August of 1891, this would imply a date in the autumn of 1890. Things get more complicated, however, when the client reads from a newspaper dated April 27, 1890, and Watson tells us this is just two months ago, implying a date of June 27, 1890. This confusion continues, when, upon the same day, the client produces a sign which reads:

October 9, 1890.

The client discovered this sign on the same day that he sought out Holmes' aid, which implies that the case began on October 9, 1890.

None of this accounts for Baring-Gould's date of 1887, and it should be noted that Baring-Gould's date is not popular with other chroniclers. Given that Watson references autumn, and the fact that Red-Headed League was dissolved in October, it is reasonable to assume a date of October 9, 1890. The newspaper dated April 27 is likely a typo, where August was read as April.


Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker, is noted for his fiery red hair. In fact, it is this hair which lands him a much coveted position in the Red-Headed League, where he earns a staggering four pounds a week copying entries from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This stroke of good fortune doesn't last long, however, for upon arriving for work one morning, Wilson discovers that the league has been dissolved. That same day he seeks Holmes' aid in uncovering the truth of the matter. Little does Wilson realize that the case runs deeper than it first appears; straight under Wilson's pawnshop and into the cellar of the bank across the street.

The Subtext:

Watson, married and living away from his old rooms in this case, arrives at Baker Street to find Holmes engaged by a client. His first instinct is to leave, but Holmes quickly prevents this from happening. Watson tells us:

With an apology for my intrusion, I was about to withdraw when Holmes pulled me abruptly into the room and closed the door behind me.

A curious beginning to the case. Here, one cannot help but question why Holmes was standing next to the door; if perhaps he was anticipating Watson's arrival, or, if upon seeing Watson, Holmes sprung from his chair and dashed to Watson's side. Either way, the entire scene is quite suggestive of just how deep Holmes' need for Watson runs. That Holmes would pull Watson into the room and close the door behind him solely to prevent Watson from leaving is quite remarkable.

"You could not possibly have come at a better time, my dear Watson," he said cordially.

"I was afraid that you were engaged."

"So I am. Very much so."

"Then I can wait in the next room."

Again we are shown Holmes' delight at having Watson once again in Baker Street. Indeed, Holmes' reaction is quite excitable, but that is not what makes this passage interesting.

Examine, if you will, Watson's offer to wait in the next room. Most scholars agree that Watson's room was up a flight of stairs. We know, too, that Holmes' bedroom sat directly off the sitting room. It is obvious, then, that Watson has just offered to wait in Holmes' bedroom.

Now, keeping in mind that Watson very frequently appears on Holmes' doorstep to aid him with his cases, is it not unusual that, in this instance, Watson feels as though he is intruding? If Watson did not come to engage in a case, then why did he come? And why would he need to wait in Holmes' bedroom? This entire exchange conjures images of a Victorian era booty call.

Holmes, of course, consumed by a case, pushes both his and Watson's libido to the background, insisting that Watson stay to help with the case. In fact, he remarks to his client:

"Not at all. This gentleman, Mr. Wilson, has been my partner and helper in many of my most successful cases, and I have no doubt that he will be of the utmost use to me in yours also."

Again an indication of just how much Holmes values Watson's aid and assistance. Here, Holmes himself admits that Watson has been instrumental in solving the majority of Holmes' successful cases. Clearly, Holmes has come to know and appreciate Watson's usefulness.

Their relationship, however, goes beyond mere usefulness in a professional setting. Indeed, the pair share many common interests; the cornerstone of a many a successful marriage.

"I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life. You have shown your relish for it by the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures."

"Your cases have indeed been of the greatest interest to me," I observed.

The reader can easily imagine that it is this shared love which first brought the two men together. Indeed, this shared love is likely what bound them together throughout the many decades of their close association.

That is not to say, however, that their relationship was without the occasional spat. Indeed, Holmes can be quite trying at times, and one cannot help but wonder how Watson tolerated his occasional fits of boasting.

"You did, Doctor, but none the less you must come round to my view, for otherwise I shall keep on piling fact upon fact on you until your reason breaks down under them and acknowledges me to be right.

Here we are presented with a typical scene. Holmes' need to be right and to have his superiority validated is something that Watson offers with an amused grin and an affectionate glance. This scene of domestic squabbling is again reminisce of a marriage, and brings to mind the inevitable conflicts which arise in every relationship; as well as the love needed to overcome such things.

Holmes is not alone in wanting to score one on Watson. Indeed, several times throughout Canon Watson attempts to best Holmes at his own game. Sadly, for Watson, Holmes is more than well aware of Watson's attempts.

Sherlock Holmes' quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances.

The above is in reference to Watson's attempts at reading Holmes' client. Here we can safely say that, were Holmes less aware of Watson, one can easily imagine that Watson might have succeeded where Holmes had failed. Again, sadly for Watson (but not the reader) Holmes seems to be perpetually aware of Watson. Indeed, one can almost picture Holmes constantly glancing out of the corner of his eye whenever Watson is around.

Watson's confusion does not dissipate, however; in fact, it grows stronger as their client hands over a curious advertisement found in The Morning Chronicle.

"What on earth does this mean?" I ejaculated after I had twice read over the extraordinary announcement.

Holmes chuckled and wriggled in his chair, as was his habit when in high spirits.

Here we can only shake our head and admonish: now, now, boys; there is a client in the room.

Jacob Wilson continues his story, and upon reaching his conclusion, Watson tells us:

Sherlock Holmes and I surveyed this curt announcement and the rueful face behind it, until the comical side of the affair so completely overtopped every other consideration that we both burst out into a roar of laughter.

Such ease between the pair; such playfulness. Is it any wonder that they chose to share the bulk of their lives with one another?

Shortly after reassuring their client that, yes, they did take the problem quite seriously, their client leaves, leaving Holmes and Watson to enjoy one another's company.

"What are you going to do, then?" I asked.

"To smoke," he answered. "It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won't speak to me for fifty minutes." He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird. I had come to the conclusion that he had dropped asleep, and indeed was nodding myself, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with the gesture of a man who has made up his mind and put his pipe down upon the mantelpiece.

"Sarasate plays at the St. James's Hall this afternoon," he remarked. "What do you think, Watson? Could your patients spare you for a few hours?"

"I have nothing to do to-day. My practice is never very absorbing."

"Then put on your hat and come. I am going through the City first, and we can have some lunch on the way. I observe that there is a good deal of German music on the programme, which is rather more to my taste than Italian or French. It is introspective, and I want to introspect. Come along!"

Holmes, having obtained a successful solution for the moment, immediately puts the case aside and requests that Watson join him for a concert. This is particularly curious, as Holmes is usually known for his single-mindedness when involved in a case. It is suggestive, then, that Holmes would choose to dismiss the case in favour of taking Watson out on a date.

Notice too Watson's remark that his practice is never very absorbing. One cannot help but wonder if Watson intentionally chose a light practice in order to make time for Holmes. One must also question whether Watson's wife knew of Watson's limited practice, or whether she was under the assumption that Watson was busy doctoring when in reality he was with Holmes in Baker Street.

Their date is delayed slightly, Holmes choosing to first investigate the scene of the crime. Upon completing his investigation of Wilson's pawnshop, Holmes remarks:

And now, Doctor, we've done our work, so it's time we had some play. A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony, and there are no red-headed clients to vex us with their conundrums."

Play, indeed.

My friend was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit. All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive. In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often thought, the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him. The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions. Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that 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. When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James's Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.

I am tempted to leave Watson's description as it stands, without analyzing it in its entirety, as I feel it is rather suggestive on its own. I will, however, point out several interesting passages.

I want first to draw your attention to Holmes' happiness, as expressed by Watson. That Holmes was an avid music love is without question, yet, there is something more suggestive in this description. Could it be that Holmes' happiness stemmed from spending an afternoon by his friend's side, listening to the sweet, romantic melody of a violin as it serenaded them?

Notice, too, Watson's description of Holmes' gently smiling face and languid, dreamy eyes. Quite descriptive, I am sure you will agree, and hardly the description a man might give a mere friend. Then there is Watson's reference to Holmes' poetic mood, a clear attempt at romanticizing Holmes.

Beyond even these examples, one must examine the long consideration Watson gives his friend and companion, and indeed, the intimate knowledge of Holmes that Watson displays. Clearly this attention goes beyond mere friendship.

Sadly, their outing must come to an end, and then it is back to business, Holmes requesting Watson's aid, which Watson readily gives.

"Very well. And, I say, Doctor, there may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket."

The reader will undoubtedly recall several instances where Holmes has relied upon Watson's proficiency with a firearm to provide protection. As I have mentioned before, this is a very clear indication of trust, and indeed, dependence. That Holmes should put his life entirely in Watson's hands is quite telling.

Watson agrees, and the two part ways, arranging to meet up at Baker Street at ten o'clock. Watson leaves his home and wife at quarter past nine for another long night at Holmes' side. Upon arriving at Baker Street, Watson is surprised to discover the presence of Inspector Jones, of Scotland Yard, and an unknown man who is later revealed to be the bank director. Particular attention should be given to Jones' comment upon Watson's arrival.

"We're hunting in couples again, Doctor, you see," said Jones in his consequential way.

The reader will not be surprised to discover, then, that Holmes and Watson make up one of these couples.

The four head out in separate cabs, arriving at the bank before being led down into its cellar. There, they are forced to wait in the dark for countless hours. This scene is particularly intense, and Watson tells us:

My limbs were weary and stiff, for I feared to change my position; yet my nerves were worked up to the highest pitch of tension, and my hearing was so acute that I could not only hear the gentle breathing of my companions...

Here one cannot help but picture Holmes and Watson, crouched together in the dark, perhaps leaning against one another for support, Watson trembling with nerves, Holmes with excitement. It is easy to imagine the tension building until, at last, the trap is sprung, Holmes catching his man.

And sometime later, as morning dawns over the horizon, Holmes and Watson once again find themselves in Baker Street.

"You see, Watson," he explained in the early hours of the morning as we sat over a glass of whisky and soda in Baker Street...

Interesting, is it not, the implication that Watson has once again spent the night away from his wife? And yet, despite this, and the successful conclusion of the case, Watson does not head home, instead choosing to return to Baker Street with Holmes and remain there for, from what the reader can tell, the remainder of the morning. In fact, it is entirely possible that Watson stayed even longer.

One cannot help but question, then, if in fact there ever was a wife. That any woman should tolerate this behaviour is unheard of, and yet, time and time again Watson is seen abandoning his wife for Holmes; staying out at all hours of the night, sleeping in his old quarters at Baker Street, and, indeed, spending countless hours with his old friend and companion, Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, Mrs. Watson does not seem to cross Watson's mind, as he seems quite content to sit and drink with Holmes.

"You reasoned it out beautifully," I exclaimed in unfeigned admiration. "It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true."

"It saved me from ennui," he answered, yawning. "Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so."

"And you are a benefactor of the race," said I.

Clearly, it is Holmes, and Holmes alone, who holds Watson's interest and admiration.

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