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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Speckled Band: Debunking the Scholars

Tim Greer for the defense! 
For nearly a century, surveys asking critics and readers – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself – to rank the Sherlock Holmes stories have consistently put “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” at the top. 

And for just as long, scholars have pointed to what they scorned as a laundry list of flaws in the story. Tainted by their views, I didn’t give “the Band” serious consideration when asked recently to name my favorite Holmes story, the best Holmes story, and the strongest Holmes story. 

But the estimable Timothy Greer, BSI, speaking at A Scintillation of Scions in the Baltimore area on June 11, massively destroyed the objections to this fine story. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of Tim’s rejoinders to several of the familiar cavils: 

Snakes don’t have ears, are therefore deaf, and the Band could not have heard Dr. Roylott’s whistle. This just isn’t true. Snakes have internal ears and pick up sound vibrations.  

Baboons and cheetahs don’t exist in India. During Dr. Roylott’s tenure in the subcontinent, India was a much larger country which even included what is now Burma. Animals resembling (and referred to as) baboons were found within those borders. And the Indian cheetah, extinct in its homeland for seventy years now, was plentiful in the 1880’s. 

The snake could not have lived in an air-tight safe. Nowhere does the text say the safe was air-tight. As Tim pointed out, the safes in which Houdini was immersed in water poured H2O when they were lifted into the air. 

Milk is fatal to snakes. Yes, but Holmes doesn’t say the snake drank milk. He says that Roylott trained the snake “probably by the use of the milk which we saw” – a very different thing. 

There is no such thing as a swamp adder. No, but the Russell’s viper is the very image of the Speckled Band and merits the title of “the deadliest snake in India.” 

This masterful debunking of smirking critics hasn’t pushed “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to the top of my own list of favorite Holmes stories, but it has increased my respect for the tale and will heighten my enjoyment next time I read it.


  1. There was a stage adaptation of this story written by Conan Doyle which different in several important points from the short story. The stage play had a lot more defects than the short story had.

    My Authors Expanded Edition combines the play with the short story to give a complete telling of The Speckled Band.

  2. The milk isn't drunk; it's a religious offering.

  3. Anyone who judges fiction by the facts they get wrong would be more comfortable reading non-fiction.

    Think of Shakespeare, whose grasp of geography and foreign customs was very shaky. Yet we are still moved by Romeo and Juliet.

    There's a lesson there.