The Adventure of the Speckled Band

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"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date 1892
Client(s) Miss Helen Stoner
Set in April 1883
Villain(s)

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" is one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the eighth of the twelve stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is one of four Sherlock Holmes stories that can be classified as a locked room mystery. The story was first published in Strand Magazine in February 1892, with illustrations by Sidney Paget. It was published under the different title "The Spotted Band" in New York World in August 1905. Doyle later revealed that he thought this was his best Holmes story.[1]

Doyle wrote and produced a play based on the story. It premiered at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 4 June 1910, with H. A. Saintsbury as Sherlock Holmes and Lyn Harding as Dr. Grimesby Roylott. The play, originally called The Stonor Case, differs from the story in several details, such as the names of some of the characters.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Holmes'client is Helen Stoner, a 32-year-old spinster who lives with her stepfather: Dr. Grimesby Roylott of Stoke Moran. Dr Roylott is the last survivor of what was a wealthy but dissolute and violent tempered aristocratic Anglo-Saxon family of Surrey. After returning from India where he had a large medical practice and had served a jail sentence for killing his native Butler in a fit of rage, Roylott—a widower—settles with his two stepdaughters in the broken-down ancestral manor-all that is left of estates that had extended into Berkshire and Hampshire. The doctor becomes notorious for terrorizing the local village because of his quarrelsome personality and violent temper. Dr. Roylott has required Miss Stoner, who is engaged to be married, to move into a particular bedroom of his heavily mortgaged ancestral home in Stoke Moran. This room was the one in which two years before, Helen's twin sister Julia had died under mysterious and dramatic circumstances—uttering the last words "The band! The speckled band!"—just prior to her wedding. Helen is reluctant to sleep in the room because a number of things about the bedroom are mysterious and disturbing. Late at night, Helen hears low whistling sounds followed by a metallic clang. There is a strange bell cord over the bed but it does not appear to work any bell. The rope goes to a ventilator—an opening high in the wall of the room, close to the ceiling—which provides air circulation between Helen's room and an adjacent room of Dr Roylott in the crumbling mansion. In addition, Helen's bed is clamped to the floor; this piece of furniture can never be moved from its position. Stoner surmises that Julia might have been murdered by the gypsies who wear speckled handkerchiefs around their necks, in order to bring in a bit of cash. Dr. Roylott has rented spare rooms in Stoke Moran near them. A cheetah and a baboon also have the run of the property, for Dr. Roylott keeps exotic pets from India.

After Helen leaves, Dr. Roylott comes to visit Holmes, having traced his stepdaughter. He demands to know what Helen has said to Holmes, but Holmes refuses to say. Dr. Roylott bends an iron fireplace poker into a curve in an attempt to intimidate Holmes, but Holmes is unaffected as he attempts to make small talk during the encounter. After Roylott leaves, Holmes straightens the poker out again. Holmes research of the late wife's will finds that she had arranged for Roylott to receive an annuity which had been £ 1,100 GBP but now totals £ 750 GBP, with the provision that the daughters can each claim 1/3 of the annuity (£ 250 GBP) upon marriage. If both or even one daughter were to marry and claim the annuity due her, this would seriously pauperize Roylott financially; thus the doctor has motive for neither daughter to marry.

Having arranged for Helen to spend the night in another bedroom, Holmes and Watson sneak into her bedroom without Dr. Roylott's knowledge. Holmes says that he has already deduced the solution to the mystery, and the test of his theory turns out to be successful. They hear the whistle, and Holmes also sees what the bell cord is really for, although Watson does not. Julia's last words about a "speckled band" were in fact describing "a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India". The adjacent room was occupied by Dr. Roylott and a safe containing the venomous snake, and the ventilator and bell cord were bridges for the snake to land on the bed. After the swamp adder bit Julia, he called off the snake with the whistling, which made the snake climb up through the bell cord, disappearing from the scene.

Now the swamp adder is sent again through the ventilator by Dr. Roylott to kill Julia's sister Helen. Holmes attacks the snake with a walking stick, sending it through the hole in the wall back toward its home in the physician's room. A shriek is heard, and the annoyed reptile is soon found to have injected its venom into the murderous physician. When Holmes and Watson enter the death scene, the swamp adder has wound its body around the head of its victim in triumph. Holmes replaces the reptile into the safe. A coroner's jury finds that Dr. Roylott came to his death due to indiscreet handling of a dangerous pet. Holmes grimly notes that he is indirectly responsible for Dr. Roylott's death, but that he is unlikely to feel much guilt over the chain of events that led to his departure from this world.

Inspirations[edit]

Richard Lancelyn Green, the editor of the 2000 Oxford paperback edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, surmises that Doyle's source for the story appears to have been the article named "Called on by a Boa Constrictor. A West African Adventure" in Cassell's Saturday Journal, published in February 1891.[1] In the article, a captain tells how he was dispatched to a remote camp in West Africa to stay in a tumbledown cabin that belonged to a Portuguese trader. On the first night in the cabin, he is awoken by a creaking sound, and sees "a dark queer-looking thing hanging down through the ventilator above it". It turns out to be the largest Boa constrictor he has seen (more likely a python because there are no boas in Africa). He is paralysed with fear as the serpent comes down into the room. Unable to cry out for help, the captain spots an old bell that hung from a projecting beam above one of the windows. The bell cord had rotted away, but by means of a stick he manages to ring it and raise the alarm.

Reception[edit]

Swamp adder[edit]

Naja naja, the Indian cobra

The name swamp adder is an invented one,[1] and the scientific treatises of Doyle's time do not mention any kind of adder of India.[2] To fans of Sherlock Holmes who enjoy treating the stories as altered accounts of real events, the true identity of this snake has been a puzzle since the publication of the story, even to professional herpetologists.[2] Many species of snakes have been proposed for it, and Richard Lancelyn Green concludes the Indian Cobra (Naja naja) is the snake which it most closely resembles, rather than Boa constrictor, which is not venomous.[1] The Indian cobra has black and white speckled marks, and is one of the most lethal of the Indian venomous snakes with a neurotoxin which will often kill in a few minutes. It is also a good climber and is used by snake charmers in India. However, snakes are deaf, therefore it would not be possible to signal a snake by whistling. Also, while snakes are capable of climbing solid objects, there is no way one could have climbed a cord.

In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the deafness inconsistency (while not the others) was solved by Dr. Roylott (suspecting the deafness of snakes) softly knocking on the wall in addition to whistling. While snakes are deaf, they are sensitive to vibration.

Bitis arietans from Africa, Russell's viper and saw-scaled viper also bear resemblance to the swamp adder of the story, but they have hemotoxin — slow working venoms.[1]

Heloderma suspectum, the Mexican Gila monster

The herpetologist Laurence Monroe Klauber proposed, in a tongue-in-cheek article which blames Dr. Watson for getting the name of the snake wrong, a theory that the swamp adder was an artificial hybrid between the Mexican Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) and Naja naja.[2] His speculation suggests that Doyle might have hidden a double-meaning in Holmes' words. What Holmes said, reported by Watson, was "It is a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India"; but Klauber suggested what Holmes really said was "It is a samp-aderm, the deadliest skink in India." Samp-aderm can be translated "snake-Gila-monster"; Samp, Hindi for snake, and the suffix aderm is derived from heloderm, the common or vernacular name of the Gila monster generally used by European naturalists.[2] Skinks are lizards of the family Scincidae, many of which are snake-like in form. Such a hybrid reptile will have a venom incomparably strengthened by hybridization, assuring the almost instant demise of the victim. And it will also have ears like any lizard, so it could hear the whistle, and legs and claws allowing it to run up and down the bell cord with a swift ease.[2]

Adaptations[edit]

First play publication

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote a stage play based on The Speckled Band. In December 1909, Conan Doyle had leased the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand for a production of his elaborate drama The House of Temperley. The play was not a smashing success. When King Edward VII died suddenly the following spring, the West End theatres closed in mourning. Temperley was already losing money weekly; the closing spelled its demise. Conan Doyle had refused an earlier offer to sublet the playhouse to a musical comedy. With a ruinously expensive theatre on his hands, Conan Doyle decided to play "a bold and energetic game." The American actor William Gillette had achieved considerable success portraying the famous detective in the stageplay Sherlock Holmes, which was based on an earlier Conan Doyle script. Conan Doyle was "charmed with the play, the acting, and the pecuniary result," and determined to cash in on its popularity. He wrote his own play in what he later referred to as "record time," and so saved the situation.

"I shut myself up and devoted my whole mind to making a sensational Sherlock Holmes drama. I wrote it in a week and called it The Speckled Band after the short story of that name. I do not think I exaggerate if I say that within a fortnight of the one play shutting down I had a company working upon the rehearsals of a second one, which had been written in the interval. It was a considerable success."

The Speckled Band was Arthur Conan Doyle's third stageplay and was the second Holmes dramatization. It was based with some modifications on the short story of the same name which, according to Adrian Conan Doyle, was his father's favorite Sherlock Holmes tale.

Conan Doyle engaged the estimable H. A. Saintsbury, who had toured with the Gillette company, to portray Sherlock Holmes; Lyn Harding, a talented character actor of leering villains, to play Dr. Rylott (which was spelled "Roylott" in the original short story); Claude King to play Doctor Watson; and a live snake as the title character. On June 4, 1910, less than a month after the other play's closing, the Adelphi's lights again kindled and Sherlock Holmes walked the stage.

Holmes and Watson worked their usual magic on the audiences; but this time they were nearly overshadowed by the burly villain, Dr. Grimesby Rylott, who petted his snake in its wicker basket while the Hindu servant played eerie music on a pipe. Even Conan Doyle's bow was upstaged when Lyn Harding appeared at curtain call with the snake draped around his neck.

"Lyn Harding, as the half-epileptic and wholly formidable Doctor Grimesby Rylott, was most masterful, while Saintsbury as Sherlock Holmes was also very good. Before the end of the run, I had cleared off all that I had lost upon the other play, and I had created a permanent property of some value. It became a stock piece and is even now touring the country."

The Speckled Band ran for 169 performances at the Adelphi Theatre before transferring to the Globe on 28 August. The play enjoyed a successful tour in England, with two touring-companies on the road by the end of August, while the New York presentation was marred by clumsy production.

Conan Doyle's financial difficulties were at an end, yet there were still problems to be resolved with the production. While the human cast was excellent, the live snake proved to be a rather poor performer.

"We had a fine rock boa to play the title-rôle, a snake which was the pride of my heart, so one can imagine my disgust when I saw that one critic ended his disparaging review by the words, 'The crisis of the play was produced by the appearance of a palpably artificial serpent.' I was inclined to offer him a goodly sum if he would undertake to go to bed with it. The real fault of the play was that in trying to give Holmes a worthy antagonist I overdid it and produced a more interesting personality in the villain. The terrible ending was also against it."

However, it was a considerable success and saved a difficult – almost a desperate – situation. Another criticism of the play is that the form of the Sherlock Holmes short stories is missing. Holmes appears late in the narrative, while the ending is missing Holmes' explanations of how he came to his deductions – considered de rigueur among Holmes aficionados.

The production moved to New York. There was a London revival of this play in 1921.[3]

Later adaptations[edit]

Radio adaptations[edit]

TV adaptations[edit]

  • The pilot episode of the BBC's 1964–1965 series Sherlock Holmes was a new version of "The Speckled Band", airing in May 1964. The episode was written by Giles Cooper, directed by Robin Midgley, and starred Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson.[13]
  • "The Speckled Band" was adapted as part of the 1984–1985 anime series, Sherlock Hound. In this version, Moriarty poses as Roylott to steal Helen's money, and Hound gets involved when his motorcar breaks down and must stay at their home for the night.
  • Kōki Mitani adapted "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Creeping Man" to an episode in the NHK puppetry series Sherlock Holmes. One night swamp adder with crocus-shaped speckles is found in Beeton School. On the next day, trainee teacher Helen Stoner visits Holmes and Watson in 221B of Baker Dormitory and tells them about the strange behaviour of Grimesby Roylott who teaches chemistry. That night they find out what his behaviour means but Sherman, a female pupil is attacked by the adder.[15]

Stage adaptations[edit]

  • In autumn 2013, a new stage adaptation, Sherlock Holmes and the Speckled Band, by Max Gee premiered at Treasurer's House, York and Ripley Castle, Ripley, North Yorks. The play was produced by Theatre Mill, directed by Samuel Wood, and starred Liam Tims as Holmes and Adam Elms as Watson.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Green, Richard Lancelyn (1998). "Explanatory Notes". The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Oxford University Press. pp. 361–367. ISBN 0-19-283508-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Klauber, Laurence M. (1948). "The Truth About the Speckled Band". The Baker Street Journal, an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana 3 (2): 149–157. Retrieved 2007-02-16. 
  3. ^ Christopher Redmond, Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Dundurn Press, 2009), p. 221
  4. ^ "The Speckled Band". silentera.com. Retrieved March 8, 2013. 
  5. ^ The Speckled Band (1923) at the Internet Movie Database
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ [3]
  9. ^ [4]
  10. ^ [5]
  11. ^ The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ eFilmCritic – A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen: "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection" (DVD Review)
  13. ^ Alan Barnes (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. pp. 138–143. ISBN 1-903111-04-8. 
  14. ^ "The Speckled Band". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved November 6, 2012. 
  15. ^ Shinjiro Okazaki and Kenichi Fujita (ed.), "シャーロックホームズ冒険ファンブック Shârokku Hômuzu Boken Fan Bukku",Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2014, pp. 46-48, p. 53 and pp. 82-83.(Guidebook to the show)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]