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A critical account of ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ by Arthur Conan Doyle In the story of The Speckled Band a woman called Helen Stoner arrives at Holmes’ rooms in a state of terror. She is the stepdaughter of Dr Grimesby Roylott, a violent man who spent five years in India and associates only with gipsies, and has such exotic pets as a baboon and a cheetah.
Helen’s mother is now dead, and two years previously her sister died in mysterious circumstances: a strange whistling disturbed her in her sleep for some nights, and on the night of her death she appeared transfixed, able only to shriek, ‘the speckled band!’ she had been about to marry and now Helen is planning to do the same; her stepfather has moved her to her sisters bedroom next to his and the whistling has recurred. Despite a warning from the maniacal Dr Roylott, Holmes and Watson head for Stoke Moran, examine the house and wait the night in Helen’s bedroom. Holmes’ deduction proves correct: Dr Roylott sends a swamp adder (the speckled band) through a ventilator to kill Helen, Holmes’ cane drives it back and the murderer is poisoned.
The main characters in the story consist of: Helen stoner who is the main client. She arrives at Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street to ask him for help. The character of Helen Stoner sets the tone of the story: shivering with fear, ‘her face all drawn and grey, with restless frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal.’ She is obviously a sensible and levelheaded woman: therefore there must be a reason for her terror.
The character of Sherlock Holmes in the story appears to be that of an appealing eccentric. In this story he uses his powers of deduction to identify minute details with which to solve the final mystery, for instance he knew ‘you must have started early, and yet you had a good drive in a dog cart, along heavy roads before you reached the station.’ Through the story he displays elements of humour, after doctor Roylott threatened with a poker he replies, ‘he seems a very amiable person’. Subtly alluring to his own physical power by, ‘he picked up the steel poker and with a sudden effort straightened it out again. Whilst examining the premises of Stoke Moran, ‘he threw himself down upon his face with his lens in his hand, and crawled swiftly backwards and forwards, examining minutely the crack between the boards.’ This illustrates Holmes’ minute attention to detail.
Dr Watson is the ideal narrator of this story. His ability to perceive and describe details is as important as his inability to deduce from them what Holmes can. He says, ‘Holmes, I seem to see dimly what you are hitting at’, after Holmes had described the position of the ventilator and the rope. The relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson is one of an ‘intimate friend and associate. In contrast to Holmes, Dr Watson makes the sensible deductions and assumption of the of the ordinary intelligent man. He is portrayed as an amiable man as well as the devoted recorder of Holmes’ achievements.
A vivid description is built up of Dr Roylott by the description of Helen stoner. We know that he came from an aristocratic background. However successive heirs had squandered the money. After taking a medical degree he went to India, where he spent some time in prison from murdering a native servant. She describes his ‘violence of temper approaching to mania’. We are also told that he likes to associate with gypsies and also keeps exotic animals, for example, a cheetah and a baboon. In another passage Dr Roylott enters Holmes’ room and is described as a ‘huge man’ with a face ‘marked with every evil passion’. He is said to resemble ‘a fierce old bird of pray’. We are led also to believe that Dr Roylott is violent towards his Stepdaughter when Homes sees burses on her wrists.
The story is set during the Victorian era with the backdrop of the decaying grandeur of Stoke Moran this help this links closely to the character of Dr Roylott as a fallen aristocrat and also helps to create a mysterious atmosphere. ‘The building was of grey, lichen-blotched stone with a high central portion, and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken, and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin.’