This locked-room mystery was published in February 1892 in the Strand Magazine, a popular illustrated periodical aimed at a middle-class family audience. By the time contemporaries encountered “The Speckled Band,” Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson were familiar from two short novels and a handful of stories. Although audiences have been captivated by the Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician and historical novelist who wrote popular fiction to make money, felt that the mysteries’ quality fell short of his other, less popular novels. Conan Doyle did, however, appreciate “The Speckled Band” enough to rewrite it for the stage in 1910.
“The Speckled Band” is of interest for a number of reasons, including its gothic elements, potentially sexual imagery, colonial connections, and incidental discussion of class and profession. The gothic reveals itself through exaggeratedly virtuous and demonic character types and through a decayed, half-empty house. These elements emphasize the supernatural appearance of the story’s events, making Holmes’s rational solution to the crime more surprising in comparison. The gothic elements also introduce the potential of submerged incestuous desire between the powerful but insane stepfather and his innocent, victimized stepdaughters. This conclusion, based on the gothic elements, is supported by the phallic image of the snake that crawls nightly into the victims’ room through a small air shaft. “The Speckled Band” creates tension by portraying potentially inappropriate sexuality, but it places the emphasis of Dr. Roylott’s relationship with his stepdaughters on financial rather than physical victimization. This emphasis has inspired interpretations that concentrate on the story’s imperial allusions and challenge the reading of the snake as a symbol of “destructive male sexuality” (Jann 121). Such interpretations provide roots for different readings of the snake and the other Indian elements that find a more positive or powerful view of both colonized cultures and the feminine in the story.
An impoverished aristocrat who survives first by taking up a profession (medicine) in the colonies and then by marrying a woman with an independent income, Dr. Roylott complicates discussions of class in the story. He is problematic enough to be killed, an unusual conclusion for a Holmes mystery. A gentleman and a professional, an Englishman and a former resident of India, a strong energetic man and a leisured landowner, Roylott crosses boundaries that make his character dangerous for individuals and for society. Pushed to crime to preserve his social and economic status, he uses professional and imperial knowledge to carry out his task. Holmes concludes, “When a doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” The interpretation of Roylott and the viper becomes central to supporting any argument about the story.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Edited by Leslie S. Klinger. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Jann, Rosemary. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting Social Order. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Wynne, Catherine. The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.