Perhaps the most famous short story featuring the Great Detective – second only to “A Scandal in Bohemia” if at all – “The Speckled Band” was also Doyle’s favorite. When he compiled a list of his twelve favorites, it stood at the top, and remained there when he expanded the list to nineteen several years later. In the twentieth century, Doyle even adapted it into a stage play with some minor differences, and it continues to be one of the most anthologized of Holmes’ episode. It also remains one of Holmes’ most utterly Gothic adventures, rivalling “The Copper Beeches,” “Black Peter,” “The Sussex Vampire,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles in its sustained tone of dread, use of Gothic stocks, and grisly finale, and the tale has been featured in all three editions of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales as an example of an exemplary study in the grotesque. Like all of Holmes' forays, the dangers encountered here are not supernatural, but they are chilling, and they do springboard off of the conventions established a century prior – those of Monk Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe, and Horace Walpole: crumbling manors, dysfunctional aristocratic families on their way to extinction, exotic murders, locked room killings, stepfathers seeking the destruction of their wards, and starless nights torn asunder by the cries of a dying woman. Doyle plunges us into such a world, and while it is not plagued by spectral knights, bloody nuns, or phantom portraits, it is haunted in a far more palpable way: by greed and murder and evil.
One morning Holmes and Watson are called on by a woman who is clearly suffering from repressed terror. Helen Stoker tells them that she has come to them as a last resort: she has no other alternative and is consumed with a fear for her life. She explains that she lives with her thuggish step-father, Dr. Roylott, a violent man who was discharged from the Indian army for killing a servant. They live together in his dilapidated manor, Stoke Moran, where she and her twin sister once lived in happier circumstances. When her sister became engaged some years ago, she began to tell Helen that she would hear a moaning whistle in the night. Shortly thereafter, Helen's sister died in the middle of the night, stumbling into the hallway, and shrieking about a "speckled band." No cause of death was determined. A few years later, Helen has become engaged and has been moved to her sister's old room while the manor undergoes repairs. She also has started hearing a whistle in the night, and is afraid that she will suffer the same fate. Fearful of her physically abusive step-father -- who frightens the locals and keeps exotic Indian animals on his grounds -- she rushes off after having secured Holmes' interest. Not a minute too late, either, because Roylott himself has sniffed out her plot, and barges into Holmes' quarters shouting threats and bending a poker in a rage.
Now completely fascinated, Holmes and Watson journey to Stoke Moran where they observe that Helen's bed is clamped to the floor under a strange air vent next to a fake bell-pull. In Roylott's room they uncover a locked safe, a dish of milk, and a leash. Holmes is deeply disturbed by his conclusions, and has Helen secretly sleep in her old bedroom while the two men sneak in her window in the middle of the night. Shaken from his usual coldness, Holmes exhibits genuine fear and begs Watson to stay awake at the risk of his life. As they sit in the darkness, a low, moaning whistle brings Holmes to his feet: he lights a candle, grabs up a cane, and begins thrashing the bell-pull with it. Seconds later, a scream is heard, and Roylott is found dead in his room with a speckled band coiled around his head: it is a poisonous swamp adder from India. Hoping to access Helen's inheritance from her deceased mother, he had attempted to kill her just as he had killed her sister: a ruined and desperate man, his only chance at restoring his reputation as a proud aristocrat was cold-blooded murder.
Roylott is perhaps one of Holmes’ most imposing adversaries, and his demise is one of the most relished of all the Sherlockian villains. Unlike Moriarty, who is a criminal organizer of theft and corruption, or the many schemers who litter the tales with their elaborate plans to cheat innocent women out of their inheritances, to abscond with priceless riches, or to sell state secrets, Roylott is a filicidal sociopath. He isn’t craven or shifty, but bold and determined, and he would rather see his stepdaughters dead than allow them to leave him with their dowries. This places him on par with Jack Stapleton who brilliantly schemes to slaughter his kinsmen in a bid to pocket the family inheritance. As you may have already noticed, Doyle was fascinated by human degradation and evil – the types of men and women who carefully design the destruction of their fellow human beings.
Like the architect of the silver hatchet, the merciless Kate Northcutt, or Verhagen the homicidal curé, Roylott is indifferent to human suffering, and only hopes to profit from it. The story might not have the gore of “Black Peter” with its harpoon blood bath, or the Gothic tropes of “The Copper Beeches” with its madwoman in the attic, or “The Sussex Vampire” or Hound with their recitations of supernatural mythology, but once Holmes and Watson hear the story of Miss Stoner’s long-suffered terror – of her sister’s nighttime demise with its enigmatic clues – and once Roylott storms their quarters with threats of physical destruction, the mood has been set, and our heartbeats up their tempo while the duo wait in the darkness – first for the silent signal of the lamp, and then for some nameless horror which Holmes tantalizingly keeps to himself. The atmosphere is as thick with dread and terror as 221B’s is with blue smoke during a three pipe problem, and our terror finally gives birth to horror at the description of Roylott’s bloated head cradled in his snake’s possessive grip.
To make matters worse, experts (who by the way will also inform us that swamp adders are pure fiction, that snakes are deaf (cannot hear whistles), cannot climb ropes, and do not drink milk – leading many players of the Sherlockian “game” to think up slews of creative lizard/snake hybrids) have assured the reading public that, while fatal, it is highly unlikely that Roylott would be dead at the time that Holmes and Watson find him. It is likelier – fictional snake or not – that even the most potent of poisons had merely paralyzed him, leaving him speechless and immobile as the poison leeched its way into his organs and shut them down one after another. Worse yet, although justifiably, some have argued that Holmes intentionally drove the snake to kill his master, that he would have known full well that Roylott – though moribund and doomed – was still alive based on his research, and that he lied about the villain’s condition to prevent Watson from attempting to resuscitate him, effectively allowing him to expire while a doctor stood and watched. In any case, the death would have been a very fitting one: like his step-daughters who quietly, hopelessly, and defenselessly suffered his abuses, he is felled by the serpent he sent to snuff them, and is then paralyzed and killed by the same creature, forced to die their death – quietly, hopelessly, and defenselessly.