“The Red-Headed League” and “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Okay, I might have cheated a little this week.  I was supposed to read “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”  But there’s a better combination of stories that fit together in a pretty interesting way, and figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to switch things around.  Besides, it’s not like I haven’t fudged the schedule before.

They – that amorphous “they” that has an opinion on everything – say that there are a limited number of basic plots in the world and repetition is inevitable.  The specific number depends on who you ask; I’m sure a mathematician handed one of those numbers could plug the figures into some simple formula and tell you how often even that repetition is likely to happen.  Numbers and formulas aren’t my thing, though, and it’s not really all that important to the point, which is this: It was likely inevitable that Doyle would recycle the plot to some of the early Sherlock Holmes stories as he went along.

We’ve seen it before, to a point.  The basic premise of “The Naval Treaty” is similar to the one in “The Beryl Coronet” – a conscientious employee thinks the best way to keep something safe is to take it home, from whence it’s stolen and nearly causes a political crisis.  The repetition is more blatant, though, in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” mainly because its plot turns on such a unique and specific conceit first seen in one of the earliest Holmes shorts.

Here’s the basic story of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk:” a man is given a completely ridiculous job offer with an uncharacteristically large payday.  The job requirements involve copying out, by hand, excessive bits of otherwise useless information, all in an attempt to keep said man away from his actual job so some shady characters can perpetuate a little crime on the premises thereof.  If that seems vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s also the basic setup of “The Red-Headed League.”

Both stories rely on the desperation and – frankly, the naiveté – of the mark: the poor unfortunate sucker taken in by the promise of an impressive payday for very little work.  In the case of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” said mark is Mr. Hall Pycroft, a young man on the verge of starting a new job.  A few days before he’s supposed to start it, a stranger shows up at his house to offer him a better, more prosperous position.  This  unexpected offer starts the next morning in Birmingham, and his new benefactor tells him not to inform his current employer that he’s turning down their offer after all.  It’s important to note that Pycroft applied for and accepted the job in writing; his future employers had never seen him in person.  When he gets to Birmingham, he’s told to scan the Paris Yellow Pages (or the Victorian equivalent) and make a list of all the hardware sellers in the city.  When he finishes that, he’s told to start on furniture ones.

In “The Red-Headed League,” Jabez Wilson is a fledgling pawnbroker whose most striking feature is his extremely red hair.  That one aspect is what lands him in the association of the Red-Headed League, a group his clerk discovers via an ad in the paper.  The purpose of the League is to provide a comfortable bit of nonsensical work and pay for true redheads on behalf of an American benefactor.  For four hours of work a day copying out the Encyclopedia Brittanica by hand, he will receive four pounds a week.  That’s not a bad haul for four hours of frivolous work, which is why Mr. Wilson doesn’t complain.  At least, not until he goes in one morning and finds the office shutdown before he can start on the B’s.

Even the “offices” the dupes are taken to are similar: located in empty spaces without proper signage, furnished with a single table and a pair of chairs.  Both Wilson and Pycroft comment on the bare and unprofessional nature of their spaces; their handlers have convenient excuses for the simplicity and promise something better is coming.  None of the neighboring tenants know anything about the businesses that are supposed to be located next to them, not even when they close.

The criminals in both stories are also somewhat similar.  Both involve teams of two, with one or both of the partners being well-known crooks Scotland Yard has been drooling to get their hands on.  One of the pair, in both cases, is the inside man – the one responsible for engaging and managing the mark.  The other is working elsewhere, infiltrating the intended target.  While both crimes involve a robbery, what is being stolen and from where is different.  How and by whom the teams are caught differs as well.

The main similarity in the stories is the most obvious: Holmes solves both of the riddles with his usual dramatic flair.  This only causes the requisite irritation and banter with a Yardie in one case though; the Yard’s just an honorable mention in the other.

Chronologically, Pycroft engages the denizens of 221B before Wilson does; by publication date, the stories happen in the opposite order.  (The internal chronology of “The Red-Headed League is a mess in and of itself – the months mentioned don’t line up with Watson’s remark that it’s all taking part in the winter, further proof in my book that Doyle really could have used a decent copyeditor).  I was amused, but not surprised, that neither Holmes nor Watson point out the similarities between the two adventures, whichever order you put them in.  They’re both clever boys and you’d think one of them would’ve noticed a second case that’s similar to one Holmes himself refers to as “a narrative which promises to be one of the most singular which I have listened to for some time.”  Of course, he seems to say that about most of his cases.

Hey, at least you were spared a history lesson this week, right?