“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling”
—“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”
In a 1994 exposé published in The New York Times, Ricky Jay, the magician, author and archivist of deceptive practices, paraphrased a definition for magic popularized by his own mentor, Dai Vernon, wherein “the mind is led on, step by step, to defeat its own logic." This definition raises an important distinction. In magic, the person witnessing the illusion is being “led on” or misdirected—their attentions purposely called away from the deception. When the opposite occurs, when one is engaged as an active participant in pulling the wool over one’s own eyes—that is, as Jay would agree, a confidence trick, or, to abbreviate, a con. Along with novels such as Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1836) and Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), the story of the “Red-Headed League,” appearing in The Strand in the summer of 1891, completed the 19th century literary conception of an extended confidence trick, and tests it against deductive abilities of Holmes.
In “Red-Headed League” as with other examples of literary con-artistry, the victim of the trick (and his or her trust) is a vital component—to continue without it dooms the miscreant and all is lost. Thus, the “confidence” is both that which is placed in the intended victim to “play along,” and the reciprocal trust to be exploited. A particularly “long con,” then, is one which is allowed to evolve over considerable time so as to ensure optimal trust is gained. “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” transpires over roughly twelve weeks, but schemes of the sort could take many months or even years to plan, cultivate, and execute. Similarly, elaborate confidence tricks may initially come at some monetary expense to the tricksters in pursuit of a much greater reward. Indeed, it is the loss of monies being paid by the perpetrators that first sends the client, Jabez Wilson, into Holmes’ consulting room.
To delve even the slightest bit further into characterization or the plot of “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” would risk compromising the “trick,” as it were, and spoil its ultimate revealing. However, there are two notable aspects of the story which do not come at the expense of the mystery. The first relates to Conan Doyle’s use of humor. The character of Wilson and the explanation of the scheme into which he has been led, is patently ridiculous. Even Holmes and Watson cannot stifle their laughter at times, but it is the humor of the situation that gives Holmes pause to see the seriousness of Wilson’s predicament hidden below its sophomoric surface. A second feature is characteristic of the speed in which Conan Doyle produced the stories for publication and has been noted by Holmes scholars, most prominently by Dorothy L. Sayers in her 1947 book of essays and criticism, Unpopular Opinions. In telling his tale, Wilson refers to both newspaper advertisements and door signage that contains the dates of April and October, respectively. However, the client’s own recounting specifically refers to eight weeks having elapsed, a fact noted in the story by both Watson and Holmes. The difference between six months and two months, while not fatal to appreciation of the narrative itself, is indicative of minor mistakes, mostly having to do with chronology, that plague the Holmes canon, and thus cause much debate in the scholarship.