Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Speckled Band


The Adventure of the Speckled Band takes place a little over two years from the date that Holmes and Watson first met in A Study in Scarlet. Baring-Gould dates the case in April of 1883. It was originally published in the Strand Magazine in February 1892 (almost a year after Holmes' presumed death, and it is interesting to note that Watson uses the past tense when referring to Holmes in his introduction).


The Adventure of the Speckled Band begins with a visit from a Miss Stoner, a woman who lives in perpetual fear of her stepfather, Dr. Roylott. She tells the story of her twin sister's death, and the unusual set of circumstances that surrounded it. Miss Stoner is now fearful for her own life, for upon being moved from her room into the room of her deceased sister, these circumstances reappear, boding ill for the soon to be married Stoner. Terrified, she enlists Holmes' aid in solving the mystery, but little does she know that Holmes is about to unravel a sinister plot that involves a bolted down bed, a dummy bell rope, a venomous Indian snake, and an inheritance bequeathed to her by her long dead mother. It is interesting to note that Arthur Conan Doyle ranked The Speckled Band as his favourite Sherlock Holmes story.

The Subtext:

Before we get in to the story itself, I want to first comment on the period in which Watson is writing this. The story, as I mentioned above, was first published in February of 1892. Holmes, as we discover in The Final Problem, was thought to have plummeted to his death in 1891. One can assume, then, that this story was written after Holmes' supposed death. This speaks to Watson's obsession with Holmes and, indeed, his love for Holmes, as almost a year after his friend's passing Watson is still writing up Holmes' cases.

It was early in April in the year '83 that I woke one morning to find Sherlock Holmes standing, fully dressed, by the side of my bed.

The above line is interesting for two reasons. First, it is, quite literally, the opening line of the case. The case does not begin in the sitting room, as most cases do. The case does not begin with the arrival of a client, as again, most cases do. It does not even begin with one of Holmes' startling observations which served to both baffle and delight Watson. Instead it begins, simply, in Watson's bedroom, with Holmes leaning over Watson's sleeping form.

The second reason is that Watson does not appear to find this odd. In fact, aside from being slightly groggy, and perhaps a little irritated at having his slumber disturbed, Watson seems quite comfortable with waking to find Holmes standing in his bedroom. The implications of this are quite staggering.

I mentioned above that Watson seems slightly irritated at having been woken in the early hours of the morning against his will. I should point out that this is reflected only in the narrative, and not at all in Watson's interaction with Holmes. In fact, Watson seems quite content to chat with Holmes from the comfort of his bed. Indeed, a few moments later, after Holmes has told him of the case (and Holmes does so in such a way as to suggest that he wouldn't possibly think of interviewing a client without Watson present) Watson is more than eager to hop out of bed and start the day.

Should it prove to be an interesting case, you would, I am sure, wish to follow it from the outset. I thought, at any rate, that I should call you and give you the chance."

"My dear fellow, I would not miss it for anything."

I will touch on the use of 'dear' in a moment, but for now I thought it interesting to point out the trust that has grown between the two men. Here we are, some two years into their relationship, and it is already a given that Watson will assist Holmes in his cases. That Holmes first thought would be of Watson (and not the case at hand) is quite remarkable, especially for someone as consumed by his work as Holmes tends to be.

This is not one-sided, as Watson is the first to admit that he: had no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis with which he unravelled the problems which were submitted to him.

It is obvious here that, despite the passage of time, Watson is still quite captivated by Holmes, and his methods.

The bedroom scene continues, with Watson springing from the bed and immediately dressing before following Holmes down to the sitting room. This is again highly suggestive, as it appears as though Holmes has remained in Watson's bedroom throughout Watson's changing. It is important to note that, in Victorian times, men would sleep in full night attire, and wouldn't dream of attending a lady without dressing, so Watson would have needed to undress, and then redress, all under Holmes' watchful eye.

Shortly after arriving downstairs (one can presume from Watson's frequent use of the phrase 'down' that his bedroom sat on the floor above the sitting room), Holmes introduces Watson as his intimate friend and associate. While modern English language has it own interpretation for the term 'intimate', it should be noted that, in Victorian terms, the term 'intimate friend' was used to describe friendships which were particularly close in nature. While this definition is still quite ambiguous, its use was far less scandalous than today's meaning might imply. Still, it speaks to the closeness between the two men; to the bond between them and the underlying affection that marked their friendship.

When compared to A Study in Scarlet, The Speckled Band also marks a distinct shift in Watson's writing. His narrative has become entirely less formal in this story, as he often refers to Holmes as 'my friend' or 'my companion'. The gradual shift in familiarity which we first saw in STUD has been replaced entirely by terms of endearment.

"Excellent. You are not averse to this trip, Watson?"

"By no means."

It is also interesting to note that Watson's presence is now presumed. Holmes is still polite enough to ask, but his question is no longer an invitation, but rather, a request. It is obvious, then, that at this point Watson has established himself as Holmes' trusty biographer and companion.

I want to take a moment now to point out some of the amusing shifts in language that have occurred over the years. One of the things I love about Victorian English is its expressiveness, and I can think of no better example than this:

The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion...

To which we can only reply:

Well done, Watson.

Returning now to more serious matters, I thought it prudent to further examine the nature of their partnership, as The Speckle Band is one of the better cases which highlights Watson's role in Holmes' life.

I should be very much obliged if you would slip your revolver into your pocket.

Over the course of sixty stories, this is not the first, nor is it the last, time that Holmes requests Watson bring his firearm. What is interesting in terms of subtext is that this is a very clear indication of trust. Not only does Holmes trust Watson's skill with a firearm, but he is essentially putting his life in Watson's hands. Holmes, as we see again and again throughout Canon, very rarely carries a firearm. If it came down to it, it would be Watson covering Holmes and not the other way around. This requires an extraordinary amount of faith on Holmes' part, and it is interesting to note that he gives this over without hesitation.

It's shortly after this point that Holmes and Watson head out to investigate the scene of the crime. They take a train out into the country, and then travel by trap (a two-wheeled, informal carriage) to their destination. As they begin their travels, Watson finds himself remarking:

It was a perfect day, with a bright sun and a few fleecy clouds in the heavens. The trees and wayside hedges were just throwing out their first green shoots, and the air was full of the pleasant smell of the moist earth.

He later goes on to talk about the sweet promise of spring. This picture Watson has created is quite lovely. We get the impression of two men, sitting side by side in some sort of carriage, as it meanders through the English countryside, the two men enjoying the sights and quiet country air. This is incredibly romantic. In fact, especially given that this is the only time in the story that Watson waxes poetically on the subject of the weather, it is highly likely that this can be considered an attempt on Watson's part to romanticize the setting. Too often Holmes has scolded Watson for this very thing, and yet it is interesting to note that here (and elsewhere) Watson's romanticisms occur when only Holmes and Watson are present.

Upon arriving at Stoke Moran (their destination), Holmes immediately sets to work. Here, Watson falls into the roll of observer and relays Holmes' doings in vivid, precise detail. It is fascinating to note that, even two years into their partnership, Watson still pays attention to every motion Holmes makes. It has been noted elsewhere, by several Sherlockian Scholars, that Watson tended towards hero-worship as far as Holmes was concerned, and yet, one cannot help but speculate as to the exact nature of his obsession with Holmes. Too often, I have found, Watson sounds more like a man in love than a man awestruck by some great hero.

Some time passes, in which Holmes concludes his investigation of the Manor, upon which it is decided that the two men should wait for the cover of nightfall. They cannot, for obvious reasons, return to London, so instead:

Sherlock Holmes and I had no difficulty in engaging a bedroom and sitting-room at the Crown Inn.

The author would like to draw particular attention to the reference of 'a' bedroom.

One might be curious as to what took place within that bedroom. Fortunately for us, Watson is more than willing to share those particular details.

"Do you know, Watson," said Holmes as we sat together in the gathering darkness, "I have really some scruples as to taking you tonight. There is a distinct element of danger."

I want to break the above statement out into points of interest, for it contains several. The first refers of course to the passage, sat together in the gathering darkness. It has almost become a cliché now to presume that a late evening stake out should be accompanied by unresolved sexual tension. That is not to suggestion that it is without reason; clichés exist, after all, largely in part due to common knowledge and assumption. There is something decidedly subtextual in the image of Holmes and Watson, sitting alone in the dark, shoulder to shoulder, perhaps on the same bed, as they watch out the window for their prearranged signal. I'm fairly certain that this does not require elaboration.

The second passage I wish to highlight is that of Holmes' concern. He knows that this mission is dangerous. He knows, too, that Watson stands a chance of getting hurt. He then voices his concern; states plainly that he doesn't want to place Watson in danger. I can't decide which element of this statement makes the more profound impact; that Holmes worries for Watson's safety, or that he's willing to express this worry, thus revealing the true depths of his feelings.

"My dear Holmes!"

Is Watson's reply, and it is here that we examine the use of the term, dear. Dear, according to the Victorians, was a simple term of endearment. It was meant to express fondness, and affection, and feelings of friendship. The Victorians, however, were quite the repressed group (what does one expect from a people who actively covered their table legs in order to avoid thinking about sex), so their language developed in such a way as to be laden with innuendo, often without their realization. Given this knowledge, even the term my dear becomes highly suggestive in the context of this story. It is interesting to note that both Holmes and Watson use this term of endearment when addressing one another throughout The Speckled Band.

But we shall have horrors enough before the night is over; for goodness' sake let us have a quiet pipe and turn our minds for a few hours to something more cheerful.

This comes in the midst of their stake out, and one can only imagine what something more cheerful could have occupied their minds for several hours, for it is close to nine before they spot Dr. Roylott and close to eleven before they receive their prearranged signal. The details of these two hours, however, I shall leave to the reader's imagination.

Holmes was for the moment as startled as I. His hand closed like a vice upon my wrist in his agitation.

This particular passage occurs during their journey from the inn (and their single bedroom) to the Manor. I think the reader will agree with me when I state that Holmes was not an outwardly affectionate individual. We have very few references of him touching another individual (unless the case warranted it), and yet, the one person whom he does touch (and with some frequency) is Watson.

What is telling in the above line is that Holmes, startled and momentarily afraid, automatically reaches for Watson. In fact, reaching for Watson is his first instinct.

He recovers quickly, but can't quite bring himself to break contact with Watson.

Then he broke into a low laugh and put his lips to my ear. "It is a nice household," he murmured.

Is there anything more intimate than a man leaning close and whispering in his companion's ear? Notice, too, the use of the phrase, put his lips to my ear. Watson could have very easily used whispered and the reader would have been given the same impression, and yet, he chose to say, put his lips to my ear, something that, I confess, sends shivers of pleasure racing down my spine. I can only imagine Watson's initial reaction.

They continue across the lawn, and in through the open window to begin their vigil. Here, Watson again demonstrates the ease created by Holmes' presence.

I confess that I felt easier in my mind when, after following Holmes's example and slipping off my shoes, I found myself inside the bedroom. My companion noiselessly closed the shutters, moved the lamp onto the table, and cast his eyes round the room. All was as we had seen it in the daytime. Then creeping up to me and making a trumpet of his hand, he whispered into my ear again so gently that it was all that I could do to distinguish the words: "The least sound would be fatal to our plans."

In the above passage, the image that one conjures is that of two men, creeping around a dark bedroom, whispering words of warning to one another. Taken out of context this could easily be interpreted as a sexual encounter, hidden from society and the law, for homosexuality was considered immoral and had been branded illegal at the time. We must also note that, once again, Holmes is seen to be whispering in Watson's ear.

"Do not go asleep; your very life may depend upon it. Have your pistol ready in case we should need it. I will sit on the side of the bed, and you in that chair."

It is interesting to note, in the above statement, that Holmes chooses to sit on the bed, while placing Watson on the chair. It is the bed (being bolted to the floor and next to the bell pull, which acted as a bridge for the venomous snake) that provided the largest danger, and yet Holmes chose this location, wanting, perhaps, to keep Watson as far out of harm's way as possible.

They sit this way for some time, until a hissing sound alerts Holmes to the presence of the snake, and instantly he strikes. The snakes retreat and moments later a great cry is heard.

It struck cold to our hearts, and I stood gazing at Holmes, and he at me, until the last echoes of it had died away into the silence from which it rose.

I want to comment on Watson's use of the word, gaze. Gazing is commonly defined as: to look steadily, intently, and with fixed attention. In this particular context, stare, or possibly gape, would have been a better choice of words, and yet Watson uses gaze. This is quite suggestive, as it implies a sense of longing that the story does not particularly warrant.

The case ends, as most cases do, with Holmes explaining his reasoning and filling in, for Watson's benefit, the steps he completed in order to solve the case. In most instances Holmes seems quite frustrated by this process, and yet, here he is patient and, indeed, thrilled to be able to share his deductive reasoning with his friend. The use of 'my dear' comes up several times throughout this exchange, solidifying the suggestion found throughout the story that Holmes holds Watson in an affectionate regard.

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