Poisonous Snakes and Dangling Breadcrumbs

speckled band SP
A Sidney Paget illustration from “The Speckled Band,” borrowed from VictorianWeb.com
I don’t like snakes. I don’t hate them. I’m not irrationally afraid of them. I just don’t like them, that’s all. On the topic of our scaly, slithering, cold-blooded neighbors, I tend to agree with Indiana Jones. There’s something innately sinister about a creature that can kill you without you knowing it’s even in the room. Snakes are the ninjas of the animal kingdom (much like cats are the sociopaths of it), and while they may be unfairly pigeon-holed in the villain category and might be perfectly sweet and lovable if you take the time to get to know them, I feel justified in avoiding them at all costs all the same. The fact they shed their entire body’s worth of skin in one go and leave it behind like a second, decoy snake is also kind of creepy.

I only mention any of this because it’s vaguely tangential to the story for this week. Spoiler alert – this is the one with the trained killer snake in it.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is one of those stories listed by many a Holmesian aficionado as their favorite. It’s not hard to see why people love it: the risk of imminent danger, the puzzling circumstances of the case, the bombastic villain that proclaims himself untouchable the first time he meets the hero. Watson goes out of his way to help make it a memorable tale with his setup in the first paragraph – “Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.” Boom. Right from the beginning, our narrator is making sure that we know that, of the “seventy-odd” cases he’s worked with Holmes, this one is unique and interesting. That’s the sort of build-up a story had better live up to, and “The Speckled Band” does.

The puzzling death of Julia Stoner and the potential impending doom of her twin, Helen, lie at the heart of the mystery Holmes and Watson are employed to solve. The Stoner siblings have been living with their stepfather since the death of their mother, and he controls the purse-strings on their (for the period) substantial inheritance. Not long after becoming engaged, Julia begins hearing strange noises at night in her room, which happens to be next door to her stepfather, a source of enough unease on its own – Dr. Roylott not exactly being Mr. Brady, you might say – without the inclusion of his pet baboon and cheetah that roam the estate. One night, while locked in her room with the windows securely fastened and shuttered and no one else with her, Julia wakes the house screaming in terror. Helen rushes to her sister’s aide. Julia makes it as far as the hallway before collapsing, muttering something about a speckled band, and dying. The official cause of death, according to the authorities in Surrey? Fright. Helen is skeptical, though. So were the officials in Surrey, by the way, but they hadn’t been able to find any hint of proof to backup anything but their official cause of death, no matter how much they might want to.

In the time since Julia’s death, Helen Stoner has managed to fall in love with a neighboring young man, and her own nuptials are forthcoming. Sudden and unnecessary construction to the wall outside her room has caused Helen to move into her sister’s former quarters, and now Helen is the one hearing strange whistling and rustling in the dark. This odd turn is how she finds herself at Baker Street, begging Holmes and Watson for assistance. As if the circumstances themselves aren’t enough to draw Holmes’ interest, Dr. Roylott lends a hand in further whetting the Great Detective’s appetite for the puzzle by stopping by to threaten him to stay out of Roylott family business if he knows what’s good for him. He even bends the fireplace poker to drive home the point that messing with him is bad news. Too bad he doesn’t stick around to see Holmes bend it back to shape, though. He might’ve realized he’d met his match.

Holmes and Watson dispatch themselves to Stokes Moran to see what the house might tell them about what’s going on. Holmes takes one look at the bedroom in question and notices a few odd things: a bell rope that isn’t connected to any bell, a vent that opens between Miss Stoner’s room and her step-father’s, both of which were added not too long before Julia began hearing the odd whistling. Poking about in Dr. Roylott’s room, they discover a saucer of milk on top of an old safe, a dog leash with a small loop tied in one end, and a chair poised near the vent that connects the two rooms. Holmes immediately puts together a plan that will end with him and Watson sitting vigil in the middle room while Helen sleeps safely in her own.

The night ends with Holmes beating the tar out of a poisonous snake that escapes, via the bell rope, back to its owner’s room, where it does more than bite that hand that’s been feeding it. Actually, where on his body Dr. Roylott gets bitten is inconsequential; the speckled yellow snake – the source of the “speckled band” of Julia’s last words and the title – is poisonous enough it kills the doctor within 10 seconds of biting him and curls up around his head for a little snooze. It’s not exactly hard for Holmes to figure out why Roylott did any of it. If the girls get married, he loses access to their inheritance. If they die, he gets it all. He prefers the latter scenario and hatches a scheme to see it happen. Talk about his greed coming back to bite him, huh?

Part of the draw of this story, I think, is the “locked room mystery” aspect of it. There’s nothing as intriguing as trying to figure out how something could happen in a room with only one viable entrance and exit that’s locked up tight. I think the impending doom is a big seller, too. Greater risk always leads to greater reward. And the fact that the step-father is, by all accounts, a complete and utter loony bastard who is taking advantage of his sweet, defenseless nieces hits a lot of trope buttons, too, and would have especially for the Victorian reader. All in all, it’s a good, solid, stock-standard Sherlock Holmes story.

Chronologically, this is one of Holmes and Watson’s early cases. We know this because Watson mentions that it was “in the early days of my association with Holmes, when we were sharing rooms as bachelors in Baker Street,” placing it after their meeting in A Study in Scarlet but before Watson is smitten by Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four. It’s found in the first volume of collected stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892. Last week’s two pre-Watson cases, by comparison, are found in the second volume, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1894. Doyle liked to jump around in his own chronology, which led to some interesting continuity issues as he went on. How much his growing dislike of his own character played a part in some of that is up for some debate. But Doyle didn’t have the benefit of a continuity editor, or the convenience of to help him keep track of 60 different stories and what happened in every single one of them, so perfect continuity might be a bit much to expect. So far, though, moving chronologically through the stories, I haven’t stumbled upon any glaring continuity issues. Of course, I’m only one book and three stories in.

One thing I did definitely notice, though, was the sheer number of hints to other, unseen cases and throwaway mentions of mysterious happenings Doyle peppers through his fiction. If you remember “The Musgrave Ritual,” we never find out what happened to the missing maid. In “The Gloria Scott,” Holmes only guesses at what might have become of the blackmailer and his other potential victim. In “The Speckled Band,” we’re left to wonder if there was some unpleasant cause to Helen Stoner’s untimely death – Watson’s words – and only teased with the existence of the case of Mrs. Farintosh’s opal tiara. These are hardly the only unfulfilled promises lurking in Holmesian canon. They’re everywhere. Watson namedrops cases like a B-movie extra bragging about the A-listers they’ve shared five seconds of screen time with. There’s a reason so much casefic pastiche – stories written about specific cases within the canon – gets written in the Holmesian Universe: Doyle left us so many potential, unexplored cases to choose from. All these random breadcrumbs compelled me to start compiling a list of them (an on-going thing that can be found here and got me thinking as well.

Why did Doyle do it?

Here’s the thing about writers: we can be highly susceptible creatures when it comes to picking up random story ideas from the oddest (or simplest) places. Leaving all these nice, juicy tidbits out in plain sight, as Doyle did, is like dangling a loose string of yarn in front of a kitten. We can’t actually resist swatting at it. Doyle, likely suffering from the same all-too-common affliction, would have known the effect all his teases would have on his peers. His contemporaries took the bait, too. J.M. Barrie, Doyle’s good friend and author of the beloved Peter Pan wrote and published three Holmes stories. Mark Twain gave us “A Double-Barreled Mystery,” a novella wherein Holmes travels to the American West. Doyle made it obvious he didn’t have too many cares about what others did with his detective, in fact; when stage actor William Gillette, in the midst of writing a play about Holmes, asked Doyle if he could marry Holmes off, Doyle infamously replied “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” So, did he leave behind all these baited hooks specifically to get other people to write the character, maybe sparing him from having to do so again?

It could have been something much simpler, though. Did he fully intend, one day, to go back to fill in the pieces, and those references were meant as bookmarks for himself? Perhaps he had the story of Mr. Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife half-formed in his head, but it never got fully realized or put to paper. Maybe he scattered all these clues as half-hidden Easter eggs for his faithful readers to pick out and horde like dragon’s treasure, their place in the hierarchy of the Holmesian universe determined by how many of them they found. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all just bits of clever world building from a master of the art, meant to do nothing more than provide depth and realism to the universe he was creating. Watson only ever shared a sliver of the adventures he and his dear friend had. You knew there had to be others, maybe less exciting, maybe classified, maybe simply buried in his journals, forgotten in favor of another that caught the biographer’s attention, but occurring behind the scenes all the same. It’s entirely possible Doyle meant to do nothing more conniving than use the unknown to help paint in the highlights, shadows, and contours of 221B.

This week, I’m going to dabble in one of those shadows myself. Forgive me fudging with the timeline a little, since Holmes tells us himself that the Farintosh case happened before Watson’s time. It worked better, for my purposes, if Watson was there to witness the, er, event. Forgive me for the ridiculousness, too. Sometimes, even the world’s greatest detective has to play comic relief.

The story is over here in a separate blog post, because I rambled on too long in this one already. Sorry?

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8 thoughts on “Poisonous Snakes and Dangling Breadcrumbs

  1. That’s interesting about the dropped plot lines. I never thought about it. I guess I just assumed they had been written but never really checked. I do remember being sad when I had read everything I could find and wishing there were more. Ditto Agatha Christie. Love your Charlotte stories!

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    1. I adore Agatha Christie stories. Especially the Poirot ones, but Miss Marple is grand, too. When I have a break in reading all the Holmes ever, I need to dive back into my Christie collection.

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