Our intrepid narrator, Dr. John Watson, visits his ol' buddy Sherlock Holmes one day, only to find him in conversation with a fat, old red-haired guy.
Holmes welcomes Watson to come in and listen to the case of Mr. Jabez Wilson (the redhead), which, promises Holmes, will prove what he's told Watson before: life is even stranger than fiction.
Watson takes the opportunity to look carefully at Wilson to see what he can tell about the guy just based on his appearance. Besides Wilson's bright red hair and expression of discontent, Watson can't see anything special in their visitor's features.
Holmes observes what Watson is doing and says that, "beyond the obvious facts" (League.16), Wilson has been a manual laborer, takes snuff (tobacco that you snort; not too common these days since no one wants to get nose cancer), and is a Freemason (a still-existing guy-only secret society). Wilson has also traveled to China, has been doing a lot of writing lately, and that's about it.
How did Holmes know?
(1) Manual Labor
Fact: Wilson started as a ship's carpenter.
How did he know? Holmes points out that Wilson's right hand is larger than his left, a sign of greater muscular development on one side as a result of physical work.
(2) Snuff and Freemasonry
Fact: Wilson is a Mason.
How did he know? Well, Holmes doesn't explain the snuff snorting piece – we guess that Conan Doyle's editors weren't as careful as ours here at Shmoop, and no one bothered to point out to him that he missed something on his list. But as for the Freemasonry: Wilson is wearing an arc-and-compass (a major Masonic symbol) tie pin (even though all Masonic membership is supposed to be secret, so tsk tsk, Mr. Wilson!).
(3) Lots of Writing Lately
Fact: Wilson has been writing a lot lately (major plot point!).
How did he know? Wilson's right cuff is shiny from being rubbed so much, and his left jacket elbow is worn away from being pressed against a desk.
Fact: Wilson has been to China.
How did he know? Two things. First, Wilson has a fish tattooed on his wrist using a pink ink Holmes claims is specific to China. Second, Wilson has a Chinese coin (maybe one from the Qing Dynasty) on his watch chain.
Wilson had been all astonishment at Holmes's guesses, but once it's all been explained to him, Wilson laughs and says there was nothing to it after all.
Holmes gets annoyed: once Holmes explains his thinking, everyone thinks what he does is nothing special.
He quotes the Latin phrase: "Omne ignotum pro magnifico," or "All things unknown seem grand." It's like the whole a-good-magician-never-reveals-his-secrets thing. Everyone thinks what they don't understand is cool; what they do know just seems commonplace.
Mr. Wilson then shows the advertisement in the newspaper that "began it all" (League.27).
The ad claims to be on behalf of the "late Ezekiah Hopkins, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania" (League.29).
This Ezekiah Hopkins is supposed to have left a "bequest" (read: an amount of money in his will) to the "Red-Headed League," which has a vacancy for a healthy red-haired guy over 21 years of age, to collect a weekly salary of four pounds for light duties. Using the calculator we mentioned in A Scandal in Bohemia's detailed summary, this would be about 315 pounds per week in today's money, or U.S. $515. So the ad is basically offering a chosen red-headed man a potential annual salary of $24,720 to sit around and – be red-headed. Pretty sweet!
The ad asks for redheaded men to apply in person the following Monday at 11 o'clock to a guy named Duncan Ross in an office in Pope's Court, Fleet Street. (You might remember another late-nineteenth century resident of Fleet Street, a certain Demon Barber, Mr. Sweeney Todd. A wicked neighborhood! We hope Mr. Wilson didn't try any pies while he was there...)
Watson has no idea what this ad could mean.
Holmes is so happy about the weirdness of this ad that he wriggles in his chair.
He tells Watson to note the newspaper where the ad appears: the Morning Chronicle (a real British paper that stopped printing in 1862, nearly three decades before all this is supposed to be taking place) on April 27, 1890. Holmes notes that the ad is dated about two months before the story's action takes place. (For attentive readers, this means this case is happening two years after A Scandal in Bohemia.)
Back to Jabez Wilson: Wilson is a pawnbroker with a shop in Coburg Square (not real, by the way) who employs one guy, a fellow named Vincent Spaulding, who has agreed to come work for Wilson at half-price so he can learn the pawn business.
This same Spaulding really likes photography. He keeps a dark room in the pawnshop basement that he's always disappearing into to develop his pictures.
Wilson's wife is dead and he has no children, so he, Spaulding, and a fourteen-year-old maid who does the cooking all share the pawnshop apartments and live in a quiet way.
So, one day exactly eight weeks before, Spaulding pops up and says hey, Mr. Wilson, check this out – I wish I had red hair so I could apply to the League of the Red-Headed Men.
Spaulding tells Wilson that this League was founded by an eccentric American millionaire (Ezekiah Hopkins, as the ad states) who was himself red-headed, and who set aside a fortune to go to selected men with red hair in exchange for very little work.
This "vacancy," or open slot, in the League is dedicated to London residents who are grown men.
Spaulding persuades Wilson (whose hair is of "a very rich and full tint" (League.56) of red) to go to the advertised office and give this League thing a shot.
So Wilson turns up at the appointed time at the right address and finds tons of other red-haired men lined up. At last, Wilson gets to see a small man with hair "even redder" (League.59) than his own.
The little man (who turns out to be the same Duncan Ross mentioned in the newspaper ad) is very impressed by Wilson's red-headedness. He tugs on the hair to make sure that it's not a wig, and asks Wilson if he has a family.
Wilson says no, and Ross gets very disappointed, since the fund is supposed to be for the "spread" (League.66) of redheads. But Ross says he'll make an exception for Wilson, even though he has no children, because his hair is so very red.
Ross asks Wilson when he can start his new duties.
Wilson replies that he does have a business already, so he's concerned – when would he have to come in to work?
Ross answers: ten to two every day without fail. Wilson has to stay in the building during the whole four hours, or he'll have to give up his four pounds per week. And the work, Ross tells Wilson, is to copy the Encyclopedia Britannica, starting with the first volume. Wilson has to bring his own ink and pens; the League will provide table and chair.
Spaulding promises he'll look after the pawnshop during those hours and generally encourages Wilson to take the position.
So, the next day, Wilson sets off with ink, pen, and "foolscap" paper. He meets Duncan Ross and starts in on the letter "A."
At first, Ross drops by pretty regularly to see how things are going with Wilson, but as the weeks go on, he starts coming less and less regularly, until he stops altogether.
Eight weeks go by like this and Wilson gets mostly through "A."
But then! We get to this very morning, October 9, 1890 (and we have to point out that Conan Doyle's math isn't very good, since this is supposed to be just two months after the date of the ad, April 27th. Try over five months, sucka! Sorry – we're just really detail-oriented over here at Shmoop).
On this morning, Mr. Wilson finds a notice attached to the door of the League office: "The Red-Headed League Is Dissolved." In other words, everything's at an end with no explanation.
Holmes and Watson burst out laughing.
Wilson is offended by their humor at his expense, but continues his story. Wilson asks around the office building where he's been working and no one has heard of Duncan Ross or the Red-headed League. In fact, the landlord says he's been renting that office to a lawyer named William Morris. The forwarding address this "Morris" left turns out to be an artificial knee cap factory, and no one there had every heard of either William Morris or Duncan Ross.
At a loss, Wilson goes home to (Saxe-)Coburg Square. Cool side note: this nonexistent square may be named in reference to the British royal surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the last name of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's honey) and Victoria's son, King Edward VII.
Spaulding advises that Wilson wait and see what happens. Maybe Wilson will get a letter explaining the whole thing.
But Wilson's not patient enough for that – which is why he's come to see Mr. Holmes, to get his help explaining what the heck is going on.
Holmes says – we're glad you came, because strange things are afoot. Yeah, chimes in Wilson, and I've lost all this money! Holmes is like – no, you didn't. You've gotten thirty pounds of pure profit, plus all of this great information starting with "A."
Wilson is still miffed: he thinks the whole thing is a weird prank, and he wants to know who's responsible.
Holmes agrees to clear up the matter.
Holmes asks how long Spaulding had been employed by Wilson by the time Spaulding showed Wilson the ad. Wilson answers, one month – Spaulding answered an ad Wilson placed in the paper for an assistant, and Wilson took him on because Spaulding is smart and cheap.
Wilson further describes Spaulding as short, quick, beardless, over thirty, with a white acid splash scar on his forehead. Holmes perks up at this last description, and asks if Spaulding's also got pierced ears. Yep, Wilson confirms.
Holmes says that today is Saturday – by Monday, the case should be solved. Wilson takes off after this promise.
Holmes settles in to think, calling this a "three pipe problem" (League.133), meaning that he'll have to smoke three full pipes of tobacco to finish thinking about it.
After spending fifty minutes in hard thinking, Holmes springs out of his chair and invites Watson to a concert at St. James Hall by (Pablo de) Sarasate – incidentally, a real Spanish violinist and composer.
They go via the London Underground, a.k.a. London's subway system – newly constructed in the nineteenth century.
Holmes and Watson get off at the Aldersgate Station and pay a visit to Jabez Wilson's pawnshop. Holmes carefully examines the street on which the shop's located, and then thumps his walking stick on the ground in front of the shop two or three times.
Holmes then knocks on the shop's door. A bright, clean-shaven young guy opens the door.
Holmes asks this young fellow how to get to the Strand (a major London street). After the guy tells him and then retreats back into the shop, Holmes informs Watson that this store clerk is the fourth smartest and the third most daring man in London.
Watson tells Holmes that he can see that the young guy is important to the case, and that Holmes must have asked the way to the Strand just to get a look at him.
Holmes says he didn't need to see the guy – he needed to see the state of the knees of his pants.
Watson is all ?!?
Holmes replies that they need to find out what's behind the pawnshop on Coburg Street: there's a tobacconist (a shop selling tobacco), a newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, a vegetarian restaurant, and a carriage-building place.
Satisfied, Holmes then suggests that he and Watson grab a sandwich and head off to hear some music. Watson is impressed with Holmes's two natures: he can be both a super-focused, intense sleuth (another word for detective) and a lazy lover of art and music.
Holmes and Watson go their separate ways after the concert, but Holmes asks Watson to meet him at Baker Street at 10pm that night so that they can stop a "considerable crime" (League.156). Holmes instructs Watson to bring his gun, because there might be some danger involved.
Watson drives home thinking that, in Holmes's company, he always feels really dumb: he saw exactly what Holmes saw throughout the unraveling of this case, and yet Watson has no idea what the solution might be.
When Watson arrives at Baker Street, he sees two cabs waiting in front of Holmes's door. Inside, he finds Holmes, Peter Jones, a policeman from Scotland Yard, and a Mr. Merryweather, the bank director of that same Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank that's so close to Wilson's pawnshop.
The cop Jones tells Merryweather about John Clay, the man Holmes believes is planning to rob Merryweather's bank that very evening. Clay is a murderer, thief, and forger who's as smart as he is skilled with his hands. His grandfather was a duke, and he was educated at the best schools. The police have been tracking him for years and have never been able to even set eyes on him.
Merryweather thinks this whole thing is a wild goose chase, but Jones backs up Holmes, saying that, while Holmes can be kind of overly-imaginative and weird about cases, he does get his man.
(Incidentally, the case Jones mentions here, of the Sholto murders and the Agra treasure, is another reference to Holmes's adventures in the novel The Sign of Four.)
The guys cab it over to the Coburg branch, where Merryweather lets them in through a series of iron gates and winding stone steps that lead down to the bank's vault.
So the bank's got plenty of security aboveground, but below? Holmes isn't convinced. Merryweather is outraged, and bangs his stick on the vault floor to show how strong it is.
Merryweather's pretty confused when the floor sounds hollow, and Holmes tells Merryweather to stop making such a racket, or he'll ruin the whole thing.
Holmes asks Merryweather why a group of thieves might have a special interest in this particular bank branch right now. Merryweather answers that the bank recently requested a loan of 30,000 napoleons (French gold coins stamped with the profile of the Emperor Napoleon) that are still being stored in the vault of the bank. Thus, their gold reserves are much larger than is usual for a single branch office – to the tune of 30,000 British pounds, which would be nearly $4 million today. Not bad for a night's work!
So, Holmes, Jones, Watson, and Merryweather are all sitting in the dark surrounded by gold in this bank vault.
This passage has a couple of unintentionally sexy words, by the way: Holmes says that they have a partie carrée, a foursome, which in current French can mean a sexual foursome, like a partner-swapping party. Here, Holmes just means that they have two pairs of people so they can play the card game whist (a game like bridge, played with partners).
He then goes on to say that "[Merryweather] might have [his] rubber after all" (League.184) – but in this case, a rubber is a series of games, like best out of three, or best out of five. The most common rubber of whist is best of three. So there's no sex going on in the vault of the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank in this scene. In fact, there isn't even any card-playing: Holmes brought a deck, but they have to turn the lights out to keep their presence secret from the robbers.
Holmes instructs the other guys to hide behind the crates of gold. When Holmes flashes his lamp at them, the other three should grab the robbers. If they shoot, Watson should fire back.
Watson cocks his revolver.
The only way out of the vault for the robbers will be back through their own tunnel and out the door of Jabez Wilson's pawnshop. Holmes has already arranged with Jones to have two cops and an inspector waiting for them in the shop.
The foursome remains hunched in the darkness for about an hour and a quarter.
Suddenly, they see a yellow line of light emerging from the floor: someone is raising one of the vault's paving stones! And who should peep up out of the floor but a familiar "clean-cut, boyish face" (League.191), accompanied by another guy, pale with a shock of red hair.
The clean-cut fellow thinks they're in the clear for a second, but then Holmes grabs him by the collar. The thief yells to his buddy ("Archie") to run away, which he does, but Holmes informs his captive that there are three policemen waiting for Archie at the other end of the tunnel.
The clean-cut guy, who Holmes addresses as John Clay, compliments Holmes on being so thorough. Holmes also compliments Clay for his brilliant red-headed scheme, which was so effective.
Clay gets led away in handcuffs, but not without letting loose a few snide remarks about Jones the policeman and his "filthy" hands (League.200).
Holmes tells a grateful Merryweather that he'll need the bank to repay Holmes for some expenses he's run up in the case, but otherwise he's really pleased to have been involved in the "very remarkable narrative of the Red-Headed League" (League.204).
Holmes explains to Watson, once they get back to Baker Street, that he knew at once that the only reason for the whole Red-Headed League was to get Wilson out of his pawnshop for a certain number of hours every day. The four pounds a week was the lure to get Wilson to apply.
The fact that "Spaulding" (in fact John Clay) wanted the job at Wilson's, even at half price, was further proof that he had some strong reason for wanting the position. That, combined with that detail about the long hours "Spaulding" spent in the basement of the pawnshop "developing photographs" hinted to Holmes that he was doing something in the cellar other than photography – perhaps building a tunnel.
So, when Holmes went with Watson that one afternoon to visit the pawnshop and banged his stick on the pavement in front of the shop, he was checking to see if the tunnel ran out the front or the back. It was not out the front.
When Holmes looked at "Spaulding," he saw that the knees of the guy's pants were totally stained and wrinkled – proof of hours of digging.
So all that was left to find out was where the tunnel out the back of the shop was going. When Holmes and Watson went around the corner and saw the City and Suburban Bank, Holmes knew all.
The final tip was the abrupt closing of the League offices that Saturday morning: this shows that the crooks no longer cared about whether Wilson was around or not. They had finished their tunnel.
But the thieves had to use the tunnel soon or else it might be found, or the extra gold removed from the bank. And Saturday would be a perfect night to rob a bank vault because no one would come looking for the gold until at least Monday, leaving them two days to escape.
This is how Holmes reasoned that the robbery would be this same Saturday night. So this entire case has taken place over the course of one day – that's how smart Sherlock Holmes is.
Watson tells Holmes he's awesome, and Holmes yawns. He's like, eh, well, this kind of work saves me from being bored.
Watson then says he's helping the entire human race.
Holmes shrugs. Sure, maybe so. But "L'homme c'est rien – l'oeuvre c'est tout," as (French author) Gustave Flaubert wrote to (another French author) George Sand.
(This is a misquotation, by the way – the line is actually "L'homme n'est rien – l'oeuvre c'est tout," which means, "The man is nothing. The work is all.")
In other words, Holmes is being pretty modest here: he's less important than the results that he gets.