“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”: A Study in Detection, Deduction, and Fair Play
by Gary Pullman
According to S. S. Van Dine's “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” the first requirement for the writers of such fiction is that they play fair with their readers. In other words, writers of such stories must give their readers “equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery” by stating and describing “all clues. . . plainly.” The story's detective, Van Dine contends, detects by gathering “clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work” by “an analysis of” these “clues,” through logical and scientific methods, without benefit of paranormal or supernatural aid or the use of “pseudo-science.” As one of the most preeminent authors of detective stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, would be expected to follow this rule. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Doyle plays fair with his readers providing them with the same set of clues from which Holmes himself deduces the murderer, his motive, and his method.
Indeed, Holmes reassures his confidant and assistant, Dr. Watson, that the physician has seen all the same clues that the detective has seen. “You have evidently seen more in these rooms than was visible to me,” Watson tells Holmes. “No,” the detective replies, “but I fancy that I might have deduced a little more. I imagine that you saw all that I did.” Since Watson narrates the story, sharing the clues with his readers as Holmes discovers them, the same may be said of the story's readers: they, like the doctor, see the same clues as the detective observes. The difference lies, then, according to Holmes in the deductions, or interpretations, of the clues that are identified, both as individual data and as an interrelated group of facts. Not only does Holmes identify the clues, but he also frequently reminds both Watson (and, therefore, the story's readers) of his findings. The detective forms his hypothesis concerning the means by which the murderer commits his crime on the basis of his detection of, and deductions concerning, twelve clues: the suspected killer, his client's stepfather, Dr. Roylott, fancies exotic Indian animals and keeps a cheetah and a baboon on the premises of his estate; he has a correspondent in India, where he once practiced medicine; he stands to lose two-thirds of his fortune should both his stepdaughters marry, and the first of them, Julia, has died under mysterious circumstances two weeks after she announced her engagement to be married; Julia's twin sister Helen has now announced her own engagement to be married; and several odd items have been found in the physician's manor house: a wooden chair in Dr. Roylott's bedroom, the seat of which Holmes finds suspicious; a looped lash, or “whipcord,” in the physician's bedroom; a saucer of milk upon the top of a safe in the doctor's bedroom, despite the fact that the family does not own a house cat; a ventilator that does not ventilate, opening into the bedroom adjacent to the doctor's, rather than outdoors; an inoperative bell-rope beside Julia's bed; Helen's relocation to Julia's bedroom when her stepfather orders needless construction to Helen's bedroom; Julia's bed having been clamped to the floor; and a whistle that is heard early in the morning on consecutive occasions, followed by a metallic sound.
Unlike Watson, who cannot understand the significance of the odd clues, Holmes is able to discern their meaning. The detective, aware of both Dr. Roylott's brilliance and his intention to kill Helen as he has murdered her sister Julia, to prevent them from marrying and inheriting their portions of their deceased mother's fortune, which has been entrusted to her surviving spouse, their stepfather, deduces that, collectively, the strange clues, indicate nothing less than the plan by which the doctor has killed Julia and intends to kill her sister, as he explains to Julia and Watson. Having secured a venomous Indian swamp adder from his correspondent in India, Dr. Roylott slipped the noose of the whipcord round the serpent's head. Holding the reptile away from his own body, he stepped onto the seat of the wooden chair, lifting the snake into the ventilator. The snake then crawled through the ventilator, thereby gaining access to Julia's bedroom, in which Helen now slept in the bed that was clamped to the floor so that it could not be moved and must remain beneath the ventilator and beside the bell-rope. Climbing down the bell-rope, the snake would crawl into the bed, where it would strike the sleeper. In his bedroom, the doctor, having used the whistle to condition the snake to expect a serving of milk, produced the stimulus, blowing the whistle, which prompted the serpent's response: it climbed the rope, crawled back through the ventilator, and was captured by Dr, Roylott, using the whipcord, and returned to the safe. The metallic clang that Julia and Helen heard was that of the safe's door closing.
Doyle supplies his readers with all the same clues that Holmes detects, well in advance of Holmes' statement of his solution to the mysterious murder. Holmes explains the crime on pages twenty-one and twenty-two of the story; he supplies the last clue, that of the clamped bed, on page eighteen. In addition, before the detective announces his solution to the murder, Holmes repeatedly alludes to several of the more important clues, often multiple times on the same pages. Helen tells Holmes, on page four of the story, “ He [Dr. Roylott] has a passion also for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon, which wander freely over his grounds.” The cheetah and the baboon are mentioned again on pages six, fifteen, and nineteen. The chair is mentioned on pages fourteen, fifteen, nineteen, and twenty. The lash, or whipcord, is mentioned on pages fifteen and twenty. The safe is alluded to on pages fourteen and fifteen, and the milk is mentioned on page fourteen. The ventilator is mentioned on pages fourteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen. The bell-rope is mentioned on pages thirteen and fourteen. The whistle is mentioned on pages five, six, and seven. The metallic clang is mentioned on pages six and nine. In his many reminders to his readers of these clues to the solution of the crime, Doyle does not merely play fair with his readers, providing them an “equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery,” but he is also generous in doing so.
According to Van Dine, the detective story writer must not only provide readers with all the clues that the detective detects, but the author must also describe the clues sufficiently for them to be seen as significant; he must present the clues “plainly.” On this score, too, with one exception, Doyle plays fair with his readers. The sole exception is the wooden chair upon which Dr. Roylott stands to reach the ventilator. In describing this clue, Doyle merely states that Holmes, squatting before the chair, inspects its seat carefully, through his magnifying glass:
He squatted down in front of the wooden chair and examined the seat of it with the greatest attention.
"Thank you. That is quite settled," said he, rising and putting his lens in his pocket. . . .
Holmes may be satisfied, but the readers, no doubt, are not. What did the detective see? He does not share his observations with the readers, either in this passage or later, when he offers his solution. As he explains how the physician killed Julia and attempted to murder Helen, all Holmes says, concerning the chair, is, “An inspection of his chair showed me that he had been in the habit of standing on it, which of course would be necessary in order that he should reach the ventilator.” How did he reach this conclusion? Did he see scuff marks on the seat? Were stains or scratches evident? If so, Holmes neglects to share this information with the readers and, in this instance, therefore, perhaps Doyle is not playing entirely fair with his readers. Nevertheless, this is but one of a dozen vital clues, and, with respect to the other eleven, Doyle's detective does share enough information with the readers for them to reach the same conclusions about their significance, both individually and collectively, that Holmes himself reaches. In the main, Doyle does, indeed, play fair with his readers, giving them “equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery” by stating and describing “all clues. . . plainly.” If readers understand the villainous physician's purpose, killing his stepdaughters to prevent their claiming of their inheritance, they, like Holmes, acquire the context in which the otherwise isolated clues become a meaningful set of interrelated facts that, together, show exactly how Dr. Roylott killed one stepdaughter and sought to murder her twin sister. One may well conclude that “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is a study in detection, deduction, and fair play