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This page contains information on "The Speckled Band." Click here for information on Arthur Conan Doyle. Click here for "A Scandal in Bohemia". Click here for "The Blanched Soldier". Click here for "The Final Problem".

Summary of "The Speckled Band."

Watson begins this story by informing the reader that he is about to disclose the specifics of a mystery he and Sherlock Holmes solved years ago. He had promised not to make this case known until the lady he had made the promise to died.

A young woman named Helen Stoner requests the help of Holmes and Watson in solving the mystery surrounding her twin sister’s death. Two years ago, Helen witnessed the final moments of her sister’s life as she came running out of her room screaming, “Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” Helen’s now deceased sister, Julia, had mentioned a low whistling she had heard the nights leading up to her death, something Julia has connected to the death itself.

During the story, Helen informs the men that their mother had also died a few years ago and the sisters had been placed into the care of their step father, Dr. Roylott. In the course of the “The Speckled Band,” a few facts emerge regarding Dr. Roylott. First, he has a violent temper. Second, the value of the estate Helen’s mother left has diminished greatly. As Julia was about to be married, Dr. Roylott would have been left with even less money. Third, Dr. Roylott has many exotic pets from India roaming about the estate along with a group of gypsies. These facts point to Dr. Roylott as the primary suspect.

Helen reveals she is now engaged to be married and has started hearing the low whistling her sister mentioned. Dr. Roylott has moved Helen from her old bedroom into Julia’s old room, further terrifying Helen. Holmes sees the life-or-death situation Helen is in and agrees to take the case. While the men make their final preparations, Helen returns to her step-father’s house so as not to rouse suspicion. Dr. Roylott had followed Helen and makes an unexpected stop at Holmes’ place and threatens the men in an attempt to stop them from investigating.

Holmes and Watson continue on their investigation and arrive at the mansion. With Helen’s permission, the make some observations about the rooms and discuss a plan of action. Helen permits the men to secretly stay in her bedroom that night while she returns to her old room. Holmes’ suspicions are confirmed when the men hear the low whistling and discover what the ventilator between the girl’s room and Dr. Roylott’s and what the false bell-pull were really for. Dr. Roylott had been sending a venomous snake from India into his step-daughter’s bedroom, calling it back to him with the low whistling. This snake bit and killed Julia and the pattern on its back was “the speckled band” she was referring to. Holmes attacks the snake, sending it back through the ventilator, where it attacks and kills Dr. Roylott. At the end, Holmes states he is partly responsible for Dr. Roylott’s death, but feels no guilt over the man’s death.


Unless otherwise noted, all textual references refer to "The Speckled Band" from the collection: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.(1)

Topics for Discussion

Marriage

The story's villain (Dr. Grimesby Roylott) does not want his stepdaughters to marry, as he would have to give them their inheritance. The stepfather wants to keep "ownership" of the women, and when it appears they will "leave him" for another man by getting married, he plots to kill them. It also comments on the close relationship between marriage and money. After all, it was still difficult for women to be financially dependent.

  • Is this merely a plot device, or a critique of patriarchy in the Victorian era?

Xenophobia

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is filled with examples of otherness and fear of foreign things. It starts out with the parents: Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stoner, married Dr. Roylott while they were living in India (294). This is one of the first facts we get about Dr. Roylott and it continues to come up throughout the mystery. Dr. Roylott’s association and fascination with India is never forgotten.

After Mrs. Stoner’s death, Dr. Roylott shut himself up in the mansion and has “no friends at all save the wandering gypsies…wandering away with them sometimes for weeks on end” (295). The gypsies, presented in this story as people who are not white, English, Christians, are originally suspected by Helen in the death of her sister. Helen believes Julia was referring to “the spotted handkerchiefs which so many of them wear of their heads” when she screamed about “the speckled band” as she was dying (298).

At the heart of this story are the murder of Julia and the attempted murder of Helen. While Dr. Roylott is the man who organized these events, it was an exotic animal he owned that that carried out the actual murder. It is mentioned a few times that Dr. Roylott “has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon, which wander freely over the grounds and are feared by the villagers” and the two sisters (295). Holmes suspected a snake owned by Dr. Roylott was responsible for Julia’s death when he combined the suspicious ventilator and fake bell-rope with his “knowledge that the doctor was furnished with a supply of creatures from India” (310).

  • How does this story address the issues of xenophobia and Postcolonialism/the Other? Think specifically about Dr. Roylott-his "Eastern" training, fascination with Indian animals and the gypsies that live outside the house.
  • How important is the fact that the deadly weapon was not only an animal, but an animal from a foreign country, instead of Dr. Roylott himself?

Justice

Dr. Roylott is killed with his own weapon and as Holmes puts it, "Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another" (309). Roylott is a victim of karma, but he is not only being punished for killing his niece. It also seems he is being punished for meddling with dangerous (foreign) animals.

The story ends with Holmes saying "I am no doubt indirectly responsible for Dr. Grimesby Roylott's death, and I cannot say that it is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience" (311). He admits he indirectly caused Roylott's death but he doesn't feel guilty about it, presumably because Roylott brought it on himself and deserved it. It is also important that Holmes is a private detective and does not work for the government, as his actions may have been different if he had.

  • Did Roylott deserve to die? Should Holmes have prevented his death and arrested him? What does this say about Holmes as a character, and his vision of justice?
  • Was Roylott merely being punished for killing his niece, or for his interest in foreign affairs as a whole?

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Form is Content

“See that you keep yourself out of my grip,” he snarled, and hurling the twisted poker into the fireplace he strode out of the room" (301).

Dr. Roylott is physically present in very little of the story, appearing only in this scene in which he threatens Sherlock Holmes, and at the end when he is killed. Only the first scene does he have his own voice, which he uses to insult and threaten Holmes before storming out. It has already been explained by Helen that her step-father has a “violence of temper approaching to mania” that she believes has “been intensified by his long residence in the tropics” (295). He has been in “a series of disgraceful brawls,” and has become “the terror of the village” (295). A few examples are given to illustrate the point that “he is a man of immense strength, and absolutely uncontrollable in his anger” (295). While Helen gives Holmes and Watson a few examples of Dr. Roylott’s violence in the form of stories, Holmes discovers some physical proof as well: “Five little livid spots, the marks of four fingers and a thumb, were printed upon the white wrist” of Helen Stoner (299). When Holmes comments on this, Helen quickly dismisses it, blaming her step-father’s violent temper.

Dr. Roylott’s encounter with Holmes removes any doubts that Helen’s situation is one of life and death. In their short conversation, Holmes responds to Dr. Roylott’s treats and insults with smiles and laughter, further enraging an already angry man. "Holmes chuckled heartily. 'Your conversation is most entertaining,' said he. 'When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught'" (Holmes 300). Holmes uses humor and refuses to be intimidated, although it is clear later that he has been a little intimidated, as he wants Watson to bring his pistol. However he refuses to let Roylott see that, and instead acts like the whole thing amuses him. This makes Holmes very engaging and impressive as a character.

Dr. Roylott provides both a verbal and physical warning to Holmes by demonstrating his dangerous temper by bending the poker, implying he will enact a similar punishment on the detectives should they choose to continue on with their investigation. Instead of being intimidated in any way, Holmes “picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again” while laughing (301). With Holmes’ display of physical strength, he is showing that he is just as strong as Dr. Roylott and can overcome any threats by solving the mystery.


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Function of Narrator

In the beginning, Watson sets up the story with an explanation of why he has waited so long to tell this particular story, and why he feels the need to share it. "A promise of secrecy was made at the time, from which I have only been freed during the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given. It is perhaps as well that the facts should now come to light, for I have reasons to know that there are widespread rumours as to the death of Dr. Grimesby Roylott which tend to make the matter even more terrible than the truth" (Doyle 292). This shows that Watson respects clients' confidentiality, but that he also respects Roylott in some way. He wants to release the truth about his death so that the exaggerated rumors can be put to rest.

Watson's personal voice often enters the story. "'You have done wisely,' said my friend" (298). By referring to Holmes as "my friends" he reiterates their friendship, and the fact that their relationship is not strictly professional.


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Image Gallery

All images borrowed from Wikimedia Commons (2)

References

(1) Conan Doyle, Arthur. "The Speckled Band." The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Double Day & Company, Inc., 1953. 292-311. Print

(2) The following link redirects you to the Wikimedia Commons main page: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

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