Is it time for The Speckled Band? It must be time. It’s the run-up to my book launch for Sherlockian Musings (Friday, November 15 at the University of British Columbia in the Performance Theatre in the AMS Student Nest, 7 pm). Conan Doyle will be there to debate with me about the meaning of the stories, but what does he know? He’s only the author. Anyway, he’s dead, but his spirit will waft in, I believe, to talk to us.
But now onto
The Speckled Band
by the snake, die by the snake: I think that about sums this one
up, Conan Doyle’s favourite story, and one of the most popular too, but is it
just because I remember it that it didn’t grip me so much? After all, can there
be any question who the villain is? It’s more one of those howdunits, like “The
Devil’s Foot,” than a mystery with various suspects.[*]
And how did he do it? With a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, if you believe the story. However, if you listen to the commentators, you’ll discover that there is no such snake and certainly not a snake that answers to a whistle and drinks milk or, most importantly, can climb ropes. And who needs both a rope and a snake in the story? It’s all rather “over-determined,” to use a fancy literary term meaning something like: there are too many reasons here, too many symbols, causes, whatever.
Phallic symbols, anybody? So we have a snake and a rope and a hunting-crop, which is a sort of whip, and a dog-lash, which I think means a leash, and which serves as a whipcord, which I think just means a whip. So two whips, a snake, and a rope, not to mention the cane Holmes uses to bash the snake when it comes down the rope after being removed from its cage/safe with the dog-lash by Grimesby Roylott (and what a name for a villain that is, as Samuel Rosenberg says).
But just to complicate things, some of these phallic symbols can function as symbols of femininity too, if you believe some of the critics, especially the snake when it is curled up into a headband on the dead Roylott’s head, reminding you of Medusa perhaps or the Dionysian Maenads, those ecstatic female devotees of the God of Wine. Hmm. Too many causes and too many results.
But let’s stick to the phallic aspects first: Here we have one of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran (which is an anagram for “snake story tomfool rot,” according to John Hodgson, who thinks Conan Doyle may be having us all on and subverting the whole detective genre in this story). Anyway, here we have Grimesby Roylott, eager for his stepdaughters’ fortune and not wanting them to marry out (the same problem the stepfather had in “A Case of Identity”), and so he decides to pretend to be their fiancés. No, no, that’s not right, that’s what Mr. Windibank does in the other story. Grimesby is much grimmer than that: he plans murder, and since he’s been to India (where he’s already committed a murder), he uses an Indian instrument (that swamp adder) to do the deed.
But where’s the phallic part? Well, the snake, of course, climbing down the rope. Not to mention the whole idea of penetrating a stepdaughter’s bedroom (which Holmes and Watson do too, of course, suggesting … well, who knows?). And then he pierces the other stepdaughter’s bedroom with building renovations. I mean, really. Some critics talk of symbolic rape. Is this another veiled incest fantasy? But I thought he was after their money. Perhaps both. Perhaps as some recent critics argue it’s all part of a program of patriarchal control or a rearguard action against the new rights women were being granted in such things as the Married Women’s Property Act.
And don’t forget the snake is from India: Not to mention the cheetah and the baboon (though actually there are no baboons in India) and the Turkish slippers and the fact that Grimesby lived in India and went thoroughly bad there, if he wasn’t bad to begin with. Perhaps the tropics just exacerbated his inherited bad temper, as his stepdaughter says. In any case, this seems to be one of the stories in which Eastern elements are thoroughly bad (unlike some of the other stories where the East is perhaps a source of wisdom). Sherlock Holmes does not indulge in Buddhist meditation here; he is the severely rational one, testing his hypotheses, and setting them up against the Eastern training of his antagonist.
But is he as severely rational as all that? This is one of the more physical stories, as one commentator (Rosemary Jann) points out. Holmes unbends the bent poker, beats the poor adder (which after all is only doing what an adder does), and then of course he becomes just like his antagonist, using a snake to kill (and before that, there was the entry into the bedroom).
Eastern contagion? Some critics see the story as a lament about the effects of Empire on the homeland: all this colonization is bad, not for India, but for England: it brings back snakes and cheetahs and baboons and makes dissolute English aristocrats even worse than they were before they went there. And look what it does to Holmes: he becomes just as bad, unless you think killing with a snake is okay if the person you’re killing is someone sending a snake against you (or your client) – and perhaps it is, but still … Is England being corrupted? It seems already in decline: the Roylott family, an ancient Saxon clan, has lost its fortune, and in the changing conditions of the late nineteenth century its scion has been forced to take up something as middle class as doctoring, and meanwhile the ancient manor house has become a picture of ruin.
Gloomy? Is there any hope? Well, Holmes does prevent the second murder, the evil Eastern-inflected aristocrat is done away with, and Helen Stoner is free to marry – what’s his name again? That absent fiancé who had tried to reassure her by saying oh, it’s all in your head. No, it’s all on Grimesby Roylott’s head, though only after Sherlock Holmes sends it there. In a canon full of useless fiancés, this one wins a prize for being worse than useless. If Helen had listened to him, she’d be dead.
Come to think of it, she is dead, at least by the time Watson writes the story. Why is that? Why kill her off? And did she marry the worse than useless Percy? We’re not actually told that: we simply see her ushered away to live with an aunt. Maybe that’s what women need, to stay away from men. But then she dies. Is England not going to go on, the England of good Englishwomen like the Stoner sisters?
And what about the band? That band of the gypsies with their speckled kerchiefs. But they’re not the band; they’re a red herring, like the cheetah and the baboon. The speckled band is the snake, looking like a headband when it takes up residence on the head of Grimesby Roylott. One can see how it looks like a band then, but before? Why does Julia Stoner call it a band? It’s just a slithering snake at that point, or did it wrap itself around her head too? Or more likely it is just described that way to make us think of the gypsies, another foreign element. Of course, they’re perfectly innocent of the crimes, but this is more of that over-determination: foreign Otherness everywhere, scaring us even more than the snake.
The True Villain of the Tale: Not Grimesby Roylott, not the snake, certainly not the gypsies or the fiancés (did you notice that there are actually two in this story? talk about over-determination). No, the true villain is the banking system. You scoff, but what is it that has ruined the Roylotts? What does Helen say? There’s nothing left, she says, but a few acres and a two-hundred-year-old house, “which is itself crushed …” Crushed, I say, crushed, by what giant Godzilla of a horror? What could crush a house? “Crushed,” says Helen, “crushed under a heavy mortgage.” Mortgages, they’re the villain, along with Eastern training, the whole British Empire, and the wastefulness of the British aristocracy. And if you import aristocratic values and Eastern methods even into an upright middle-class profession like medicine, watch out.
Is there anything positive here? Well, despite the undercurrent or subtext, the tone of the story does seem upbeat, at least at the end. Holmes is quite happy and not feeling guilty at all about using the snake to kill someone – though if he has to say that, maybe he does feel guilty. And true, the atmosphere early on is full of Gothic terror, and yet Holmes feels zest over the investigation and Watson wouldn’t miss it for the world. Holmes is the magical master here, intuitive yet logical (even if when you look closely – but don’t look closely! – some of it doesn’t make any sense). And that moment when he unbends the bent poker with such nonchalant power and laughs at Grimesby Roylott – what larks. Though true, he also becomes full of horror and loathing when the snake appears. But no matter, there is something inspiringly powerful and even happy about the story despite its dark undertones. Evil forces may abound, but we have Holmes and Watson to fight them.
[*] Actually, as Thomas Leitch notes, most Holmes stories do not focus on who among a group of suspects is the guilty one. On the other hand, most are not “howdunits” either. Leitch says they are mostly “whydunits” or “whathappeneds.”