The Speckled Band…

…Was Conan Doyle’s Favourite Holmes Story

Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.

The Speckled Band is, without doubt, one of the best – actually, the best – out of the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

 Don’t just believe me. Believe the author himself! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself ranked it the number one Sherlock Holmes story of all time.

I remember getting the jitters when I first read the story for the first time.

It kept revolving in my head for quite a while.

The Speckled Band is the most popular Sherlock Holmes story.

What’s so amazing about The Speckled Band? Quite some things.

The name itself – is well, definitely mysterious. I mean, what on earth is a speckled band?

The mystery is mind-blowing.

Sherlock Holmes’ deductions about the crime are eye-popping.

The drama and twist at the end – are rivetting.

Here’s my own rating of The Speckled Band.

Average Rating: 9.33/10

What’s the Mystery/Problem Here?

The story begins in April 1883, when a young woman – Helen Stoner – rushes into Holmes’ apartment at 7:15 AM.

She has a story she can’t wait to share with Holmes…

That's how The Speckled Band begins - as Helen Stoner comes to ask Holmes for advice.

Helen Stoner is talking to Sherlock Holmes and Watson in this Sidney Paget illustration

Now Helen, lives with her step-father in Stoke Moran, West Surrey, England. Her mother has been dead for many years – and her twin sister had died mysteriously two years ago.

But why is Helen so agitated? Because something horrible had happened two years ago to her sister and the same thing is now happening to her!

Two years ago, her sister had been about to get married –  when, a few weeks before her wedding – this sister had started hearing a strange whistle in the night. On one such night, her sister had suddenly screamed in the night. When Helen rushed to her room,  this sister had died in her arms with the words, “The speckled band..” on her lips.

No cause of  death was ever ascertained.

And now, two years later, it is Helen who is about to get married. And the weirdest fact is – that she has heard the same strange whistle last night! Of course she is horrified! And that is what has brought Helen to Sherlock Holmes.

The mystery is definitely mind blowing. I mean – a woman dies mysteriously in a locked room with  strong windows…And now her sister hears the same whistle this woman heard before she died.

That does seem like a horror story, doesn’t it?

How did Helen’s sister die? Who wants to kill Helen now? And what’s with the whistle and the scream?

It’s up to Holmes to clear the air…

Magical Moments From The Speckled Band

Like all other stories, this one too has moments you can’t miss, moments that take you by storm…

1 The Moment When Julia Stoner Dies

One of the most mysterious and gripping visions in the story is the death of Julia Stoner, the client Helen’s sister.

If there had to be one moment in The Speckled Band that I will never forger, it would be that moment when Julia Stoner dies in Helen’s arms shrieking,

“Oh , my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!”

Conan Doyle has presented that scene very, very well and he freakin’ really manages to create horror, mystery, excitement, and what not in that scene. My number 1 moment for sure.

Take a peek at Joseph Friedrich’s illustration of this moment…

Julia Stoner dying in The Speckled Band

2 The Moment When Holmes Twists the Poker Back

Just after Helen Stoner has left Holmes’ apartment (after talking to him about her problem), in comes her wicked step-father Grimesby Roylott.

This Roylott dude is pretty aggressive and he starts warning and threatening Holmes the moment he steps in. Now, what would you do if a stranger barged in and started abusing you? Of course your instinctive response would be to retort back and say the worst things to the stranger.

But Monseur Holmes, as we know, is pretty much a master of his instincts. He goes quite beyond them at times. Holmes cheerfully ignores all the abuses hurled at him and talks about the weather and how well the crops are expected to grow this year.

As he’s about to leave, the infuriated Roylott then twists a poker to showcase his strength. Holmes, straightens the twisted poker back (after Roylott has left) with the words:

“I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.”

I love that moment.

This is one of cool things about Holmes that makes him so endearing for me.  He does not give in to the urge to get angry, to exact revenge, to fight.

He does what’s best for the case, handles the worst situations with good humour and is mostly chilled out.

And yet, he ends up proving his point conclusively every time.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the story yet, STOP, skip points 3 and 4 and move on to the Trivia Section!

3 The Moment When Sherlock Holmes Notices the Bell Pull

When Holmes is investigating Julia’s (and now Helen’s) room, he suddenly notices the bell pull in the room. He studies it, asks about it and then tugs at it – only to find out that it is a dummy.

It is simply a string that has been hung from a hook!

That is one of the first things that starts clearing the air of mystery in Holmes’ mind…This is what makes him think ( or so I think) – something entered the room with the help of the bell pull. This idea then makes Holmes examine the area near the bell pull – the fixed bed and the ventilator for instance…

I call this one of the magic moments – because it throws the first beam of light on the mystery.

4 The Moment When the Swamp Adder Hisses and Holmes Sends it Back

Ah! Without doubt, this moment is one of the most dangerous moments throughout all Sherlock Holmes stories.

Imagine Holmes and Watson waiting in the darkness of Helen’s room for something mysterious to happen. Then, a hissing sound is heard. Holmes lights a match and hits at a dangerous snake – a swamp adder, in an instant sending it back to where it came from.

Bone chilling.

Both these dudes (Holmes and Watson) – have got nerves. No denying that.

Here’s an illustration of the scene by Sidney Paget. Classic.

The most thrilling moment from The Speckled Band

One of the few Sidney Paget illustrations that show Holmes in real action!

One of the reasons The Speckled Band is one of the best Holmes stories is this: it has many, many bone-chilling and mind blowing moments.

There’s a woman who dies talking about a speckled band. There’s a guy who twists pokers. There’s a deadly snake that makes its entry in the last few pages.

Combine that with Holmes’ cool deductions and you know this is a great Holmes story.

The Speckled Band: Cool Trivia!

1 Conan Doyle Wrote a Play Based on The Speckled Band

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a play in 1902 called The Stonor Case. The play premiered at the Adelphi theatre in London in 1910.

Apparantly, Conan Doyle wrote the play to get out of a dire financial situation.

The play was a huge success.

While the plot of the play is the same as that of The Speckled Band, the way things are shown to the audience in the play – and some of the characters are different.

For instance, Helen Stoner is Enid Stonor and her sister is Violet (not Julia) in the play. Grimesby Rylott (note the spelling!) has a butler called Rodger in the play.

Even our dear old Holmes had a page called Billy! And then there’s Rylott’s servant called Ali…

Then, the play starts with an inquest – an inquiry – into Violet’s (the client’s sister’s) death – and not with the client visiting Holmes. So, well, you get the point: there are quite some differences.

Many people think the story is better than the play. One of the top reasons is that Holmes’ amazing explanations and deductions are NOT the focus of the play!

While the story is centered around Holmes, the play has Holmes as one of the characters – not The Character.

To Sherlock Holmes fans, that can make all the difference. 😉

2 The Speckled Band Has Been Adapted Into Many Movies and TV Shows

How many movies and TV shows has The Speckled Band influenced? Take a guess.

The answer is 11. And counting.

In fact, the first movie based on The Speckled Band was a silent film made in 1912…

The most faithful TV episode based on The Speckled Band has to be the 1984 episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett.

While I have to confess that I haven’t seen all of these movies and TV shows, still, I truly think – that none of the video versions do full justice to the actual story.

The emotions that the actual stories created in my mind – well, they are truly incomparable.

Maybe you can’t enjoy a TV episode or a movie based on a book you love very much. It always seems to fall short 🙂

Spoiler Alert: Not read The Speckled Band yet? Skip the next two points and read the story!

3 What Does a Bell Pull Look Like?

In The Speckled Band, a bell pull plays an important role. It is the bell pull which doesn’t work that first catches Holmes’ attention.

What is a bell pull? How did it work in the olden days?

Well, here’s a picture of a bell pull.

Bell pull in the olden days

That’s a bell pull photographed by Kevin Gordon. Thanks Kevin!

In the 19th century, a bell pull was used to summon servants by making bells in the bell room ring. So, you pulled the bell pull in your room and that would ring a bell in the bell room. The servant/s would then come up!

Nowadays, of course bell pulls have become obsolete. Even people who do have servants, can use an electric bell to summon them.

4 What is a Swamp Adder?

The swamp adder is the mysterious and terrible villain of The Speckled Band.

It is the snake that supposedly crawled down the ventilator, down the dummy bell wire and bit Julia Stoner.

Now, does such a snake really exist? Could such a thing really happen?

While the way in which Conan Doyle recites the story is splendid, nope – the creature talked about – the swamp adder from India is completely a work of fiction.

For starters, the snake in The Speckled Band is supposed to come from India – where Dr Roylott once lived. But then, there are no swamp adders in India.

The swamp adder is found only in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi.

Here are the reasons why the swamp adder in The Speckled Band is a fictional creature that DOES NOT exist in reality.

Now, supposing that the snake that killed Julia was indeed the swamp adder, there’s another issue that pops up. A swamp adder’s bite will take many minutes to kill – it can’t kill in a few seconds – the way it happens in the story. Also, the snake’s bite would be clearly visible on Julian Stoner’s body – which does not happen in the story.

Yet another point: a snake is sensitive to climate change and it would be difficult for a snake brought from India or Africa to survive in England – so Mr. Swamp Adder wouldn’t exactly be at ease in West Surrey, England.

To top it all – Roylott offers the snake milk to drink and snakes hardly ever drink milk. He whistles when he wants to say “hello” to the snake – but snakes can’t hear.  AND – snakes can’t climb ropes. Whoops. Quite some issues!

Some cool and intelligent dudes have therefore suggested that the snake in the Speckled Band might actually be an artificial hybrid between the Mexican Gila monster and the Indian cobra.

Here’s a picture of both the creatures.

The Mexican Gila monster and the Indian Cobra. Some people say that the swamp adder in The Speckled Band is a hybrid of these two creatures.

Thanks to L A Dawson and Saleem Hamid for the original pictures

Dr Roylott might very well have been capable of performing this weird experiment. In this case – such a hybrid might be able to drink milk, climb ropes, and maybe even hear whistles. Grr…

 The conclusion?

The creature was definitely fictional – BUT – that does not take away the charm and gripping quality of the story. The story still rocks. 🙂

So, that’s my take on The Speckled Band.

What, have you still not read the story?

Go ahead and take a peek here!

Download the ePUB version of The Speckled Band

Download the PDF version