Many years ago I remember discussing this story with a friend of mine who had read these tales in her native Russian. Now if you are familiar with the development of post-Soviet literature, you may be aware of the inundation of mysteries, old and new, that have seized control of the market and become the topic of much popular debate (Russians tend to read quite a bit, hence the enormousness of the demand). And the reason for this manic spree might involve the suppression of any type of ambiguities during the seventy-odd years of Soviet dominion. In fact, when trolling around the library stacks at this German university, I came across a book that documented “the Soviet detective novel", a topic mindboggling both in its uniformity and its basic premise. The perpetrators, to no one’s surprise, were always capitalists; the crimes they committed always clear displays of greed and selfishness that could only be remedied by the intervention of the public’s defenders, be they the Soviet police force or other cooperative agencies striving to stir equality among men. Absent from these adventures, of course, was precisely what makes a mystery whir: suspense and ambiguity. But these were not terms for the class struggle. So let us return to a much more palatable time and regime for mysteries, late Victorian London, and that bizarre murder in a locked room.
As in so many Holmes tales, the two detectives are lounging about their Baker street quarters when a guest arrives, this time a young woman by the name of Helen Stoner. She is the stepdaughter of Dr. Grimsley Roylott, “the last survivor of one of the oldest Saxon families in England,” and a woman living in a constant state of terror. She will soon be married, an event that will allow her to inherit a vast annual stipend from her mother’s will. But fear of impending doom interrupts her sleep. It was but two years ago, she says, that her twin sister Julia reached the eve of her wedding before meeting with a most unfortunate accident. That fatal night, Julia asked her sister:
‘Tell me, Helen,’ said she, ‘have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of night?’ ‘Never,’ said I. ‘I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?’ ‘Certainly not. But why?’ ‘Because during the last few nights I have always, at about three in the morning, heard a low, clear whistle … I cannot tell where it came from – perhaps from the next room, perhaps from the lawn.’
That night, there was a “wild scream.” Helen rushed to the scene to find Julia had unlocked her door and was writhing, delirious, her only words being “Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” She died shortly thereafter and yet there were no signs of wrongdoing. For all intents and purposes, she “died of pure fear.” From the further description, we surmise that Dr. Roylott, once imprisoned in India for beating his butler to death, will have something to do with the murder. Yet his method cannot be known without full vantage of the plot. Suspecting his stepdaughter may have tried to betray his murderous intentions Roylott makes an appearance in Central London to ward off potential meddling from two of literature’s greatest meddlers, and twists an iron poker into a warning sign and display of his gargantuan physical strength.
None of this fazes Holmes, of course. Soon thereafter, the duo decides to take action and visit the massive estate of Stoke Moran on whose grounds “a cheetah and a baboon roam freely … feared by the villagers almost as much as their master.” After a dark and endless night amidst the gypsies and exotic animals that pledge no allegiance to anyone, including the enormous brute of a doctor, the truth is revealed – and it is not one to help your sleep one bit. The Speckled Band has always been one of the most popular of the Holmes tales, owing in no small part to the exoticness of the explanation provided. It is, however, precisely this explanation that is called into question in an article by a scientist specializing in the field, which persons unfamiliar with the arc of The Speckled Band will not want to read if they value suspense and ambiguity. Then again, there are a lot of Soviet mysteries you might enjoy.