The View from the East End
L.E.S.K. for REDH
By Inspector Hopkins
Let’s take a look at some “Loose Ends and Story Killers” (L.E.S.K) for the tale of The Red-Headed League . . . one of my favourite stories in the Canon. There are several loose ends, and they have been well covered by some venerable Sherlockian commentators in the past.
A glaring example of a classical Canonical Crux occurs in this story in the form of the obvious mismatch in the dates of when the case began, and when Jabez Wilson found the cardboard note tacked to the door of his bogus “office”. Several theories on the mismatch exist, including one by our editor, Brad Keefauver, in which he suggested that Wilson simply lied to Holmes about the actual period of his employment in order to keep Holmes’s fee down. I have read of others, which include a “printer’s error”, and/or a simple mistake on Watson’s part. I noticed that the Granada Film version of this story corrects the note and assigns it a date of June 28, 1890.
Setting aside the causes of this mismatch, I would submit that the note itself, regardless of date, was Clay’s undoing. All he and his accomplices had to do was to sit tight, wait until Wilson was asleep, then clear out the bank vault and make their getaway before Monday. Instead of paying Wilson his weekly salary of 4 pounds on the Saturday, they bailed out on him and left the note. This in turn led Wilson to consulting Holmes, and, well, you know the rest . . .
Thus, if there were no cardboard note on the door, there would be no story to tell.
There are a number of loose ends in this story. Here are just a few:
1) Hiding the dirt: I know I’m not the first Sherlockian to wonder how John Clay and his accomplices hid the excavated dirt in Wilson’s cellar, and I also know I won’t be the last. We don’t know exactly how far Clay had to tunnel through to the bank, and we don’t know how large his tunnel was, either. Let’s assume Wilson’s pawnshop was within 30 feet or so of the target, and assume that the tunnel was 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. That’s ten cubic yards of earth and rocks that had to be moved, and is not an unreasonable amount to dig out and fit in a typical cellar of perhaps a 20’ x 20’ x 8’size. If Clay had more than one accomplice, perhaps some of it could be carted away as the tunnel progressed, but if so, could this activity be kept hidden? What about shoring up the roof of the tunnel? How would he have done that? How about chiseling through the bank’s foundations? It seems to me that a lot more than Clay’s trouser knees would have gotten dirty during this exercise.
2) The fourteen year old girl who “did a bit of simple cooking” for Wilson. Who was she? Where did she come from? Was she an accomplice? Did she act as a lookout for Clay whilst he was busily digging away? Again, we don’t know. No other Sherlockian commentator has asked these questions either, at least to my knowledge. My own take on this one is that she was introduced as a “servant”, so that Wilson would qualify as being a member of the British “middle class”. In those days, if you could afford to hire a servant, then you were middle class, even if you were “obese, pompous, and slow”, as Watson put it.
3) The weight of the gold: I did a bit of research on this. According to Wikipedia, French Napoleons were 90% pure gold and were minted in 20 or 40 franc coins, weighing between 6.5 and 13 grams each. Assuming there were 30,000 of them, then they would weigh between 430 and 859 pounds, excluding the weight of the boxes and lead foil in which they were packed. Even if they were repacked in canvas bags, that’s a lot of weight to try and drag backwards through a 30’ x 3’ x 3’ tunnel. How would Clay and Archie have attempted this? In the dark? Trying to keep quiet all the while? How would they have transported all these hundreds of pounds of gold? Surely a horse drawn carriage would have been needed.
4) The location of the Bank Vault: How did John Clay and his accomplices know exactly how far, how deep, and in what direction to dig? The Granada Films version of this story suggests that Clay actually broke into the London sewer system which connects the buildings . . . which seems to make such a tunneling more plausible. But it would also seem (to me at least), that would just make things even messier with all that sewage to wade through! And besides, he would still have to have exact measurements in order to accomplish this. Very improbable.
The interested Sherlockian is referred to the following link for consideration:
Until next time, when we will consider another L.E.S.K. analysis, I am indeed,
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