The Adventure of the Speckled Band

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"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
1892 illustration by Sidney Paget
AuthorArthur Conan Doyle
SeriesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date1892

"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]

Shy Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rise unusually early one night to meet a young woman named Helen Stoner. Helen fears that her life is being threatened by her step-father, Roylott, a doctor who practiced in Calcutta, India and was married to Helen's late mother who was a widow living there. Dr. Roylott is the impoverished last survivor of what was a wealthy but violent, ill-tempered and amoral Anglo-Saxon aristocratic family of Surrey, and has already served a jail sentence in the past for killing his Indian butler in a rage. Helen's twin sister had died almost two years earlier, shortly before she was to be married. Helen had heard her sister's dying words, "The speckled band!" but was unable to decode their meaning. Helen herself, troubled by the perplexing death of her sister[2], is now engaged, and she has begun to hear strange noises and observe strange activities around Stoke Moran, the impoverished and heavily mortgaged estate where she and her stepfather live.

Dr. Roylott also keeps strange company at the estate: He is best friends with a band of Gypsies on the property, and has a cheetah and a baboon as pets. For some time, he has been making modifications to the home. Before Helen's sister's death, he had modifications made inside the house, and is now having the outside wall repaired, forcing Helen to move into the room where her sister died.

Holmes listens carefully to Helen's story and agrees to take the case. He plans a visit to the manor later in the day. Before he can leave, however, he is visited by Dr. Roylott himself, who threatens him should he interfere. Undaunted, Holmes proceeds, first to the courthouse, where he examines Helen's late mother's will, and then to the countryside.

At Stoke Moran, Holmes inspects the premises carefully inside and out. Among the strange features that he discovers are a bed anchored to the floor, a bell cord that does not work, and a ventilator hole between Helen's temporary room and that of Dr Roylott.

Holmes and Watson arrange to spend the night in Helen's room. In darkness they wait; suddenly, a slight metallic noise and a dim light through the ventilator prompt Holmes to action. Quickly lighting a candle, he discovers on the bell cord the "speckled band"—a venomous snake. He strikes the snake with a stick, driving it back through the ventilator. Agitated, it attacks Roylott, who had been waiting for it to return after killing Helen. Holmes identifies the snake as a "swamp adder" and reveals to Watson the motive: the late wife's will had provided an annual income of ₤750 sterling, of which each daughter could claim one third upon marriage. Thus, Dr. Roylott plotted to remove both of his stepdaughters before they married to avoid losing most of the fortune he controlled when the daughters took with them their share of money left for them by their mother from their birth father's estate.


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.


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.[3] 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.[3] 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. Snakes are deaf in the conventional sense but have vestiges to sense vibrations and low-frequency airborne sounds, making it remotely plausible to signal a snake by whistling.

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.[3] 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 is 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.[3] 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.[3]


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 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 4 June 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.[4]

Film adaptations[edit]

Radio adaptations[edit]

TV adaptations[edit]

  • A half-hour television adaptation starring Alan Napier and Melville Cooper was broadcast as the tenth episode of the NBC Television series Your Show Time on 25 March 1949.[14][15]
  • The pilot episode of the BBC's 1964–1965 series Sherlock Holmes was a new version of "The Speckled Band", airing in May 1964 as part of the Detective anthology series. The episode was written by Giles Cooper, was directed by Robin Midgley, and starred Douglas Wilmer as Holmes, Nigel Stock as Watson and Felix Felton as Roylott.[16]
  • "The Speckled Band" was adapted for the screen in the USSR in 1979 with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Doctor Watson.
  • "The Speckled Band" was the sixth episode of the first series of Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, first broadcast in 1984.[17]
  • "The Speckled Band" was adapted as part of the 1984–85 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 a 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.[18]

Video game adaptations[edit]

  • Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodō Ryūnosuke no Bōken adapted "The Speckled Band" into the game's second episode, "The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band". In the episode, the protagonist aids Sherlock Holmes in the investigation, the protagonist's best friend takes the place of Helen Stone as the victim, and the culprit's true identity is changed to a Russian asylum seeker who was going by the alias of Roylott to hide their identity. The actual truth behind the case is completely altered, with Holmes at one point deducing the story's original conclusion before another character points out the numerous flaws in it.

Later 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.

See also[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. ^ "The Adventure of the Speckled Band Full Text and Analysis - Owl Eyes". Retrieved 2018-05-04.
  3. ^ a b c d e Klauber, Laurence M. (1948). "The Truth About the Speckled Band". The Baker Street Journal. 3 (2): 149–157. Retrieved 2007-02-16.
  4. ^ Christopher Redmond, Sherlock Holmes Handbook (Dundurn Press, 2009), p. 221
  5. ^ "The Speckled Band". Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  6. ^ Eyles, Alan (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. p. 132. ISBN 0-06-015620-1.
  7. ^ Bunson, Matthew (1997). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana: an A-to-Z guide to the world of the great detective. Macmillan. p. 247. ISBN 0-02-861679-0.
  8. ^ Barnes, Alan (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. p. 198. ISBN 1-903111-04-8.
  9. ^ "Sherlock Holmes OTR - Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (January 9, 2014)". Internet Archive. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  10. ^ "Sherlock Holmes Tom Conway". Internet Archive. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  11. ^ "Sherlock Holmes 1948-12-19 The Speckled Band". Internet Archive. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  12. ^ "CBS Radio Mystery Theater 1977-1978". Internet Archive. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  13. ^ Bert Coules. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  14. ^ The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) on IMDb
  15. ^ eFilmCritic – A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen: "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection" (DVD Review)
  16. ^ Alan Barnes (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. pp. 138–143. ISBN 1-903111-04-8.
  17. ^ "The Speckled Band". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  18. ^ 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)

External links[edit]