A classic murder mystery is made up of a number of typical elements. Among these are the principal characters central to the story: an unscrupulous villain, a shrewd detective who often outwits the police, usually accompanied by his less proficient sidekick, and a hapless victim/s. Throughout the course of the story, which is dominated by a process of investigation, clues and sometimes red herrings are dropped as to who the suspects are. During the narrative there is heightened tension, usually followed by a dramatic climax and unexpected surprise when the mystery is solved and the truth – not always realistic – is revealed.
Much of the mystery element of a murder story is derived from the physical setting, as in spooky houses or the desolate moors in Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Unusually, though very successfully, The Speckled Band is narrated by Holmes’s sidekick, Dr Watson, a trusted and amiable man. Throughout the story we are dependent on Dr Watson for information to bring us closer in; if he is in the dark, we have the reassurance that so are we, and if we are not, then we have the triumph of knowing the truth before Dr Watson.
He admires and faithfully follows Holmes, even into dangerous situations such as the visit to Stoke Moran, despite a clear warning from the detective. “I have really some scruples as to taking you tonight. There is a distinct element of danger. ” Like a typical sidekick, Watson is forever seen as Sherlock Holmes’s steadfast companion. Although he is not as quick and bright as Holmes, he carries fine qualities of his own: we know he is no fool from the fact that he is a doctor and therefore an educated man.
However, despite being an important character who enhances the story, Watson is portrayed as more ordinary than Holmes, someone the readers can relate to, and who lives slightly in the detective’s shadow, which is a common murder mystery trait. In the case of The Speckled Band, there are two victims, both Miss Stoners, one murdered and the other saved by Holmes. The Victorian sisters show signs of being vulnerable young women, and orphans at that. They come across as typical victims of that era through the use of melodramatic speech, especially the words used by Helen Stoner when she first meets Holmes and it is clear that she is in
a state of terror, “at least throw a little light through the dense darkness which surrounds me? … My heart is lightened already since I have confided my trouble to you. ” The sisters are classic ‘maidens in distress’, at the mercy of a wicked stepfather, and have endured not only great public humiliation and torment but actual physical abuse at his hands (indicated by the bruises on Helen Stoner’s wrist). The Miss Stoners are heiresses, providing a clear motive for murder. The descriptions of Helen at the beginning of the story are intended to inspire our sympathy, “shivering …
dressed in black and heavily veiled. ” The one element that lifts her above the role of victim is her courage in taking the steps needed in seeking help from Sherlock Holmes, following his instructions and putting her trust in him which she is probably not used to. Although the villain of the story has rather extraordinary and unusual characteristics, Conan Doyle still manages to fit him into the classic character of a murder mystery’s villain. Dr Roylott is a man with a family history of madness and a violent temper, coming from a generation of dissolute heirs who have ruined family fortunes.
Nevertheless, he shows signs of cleverness and cunning. We are informed by Helen Stoner that he has a medical degree and the capability of making a success of both his career and his plans for murder, which we later learn, he carries out with great ingenuity. We are also told earlier on in the story that he is known to be capable of killing, following an incident where he beat his butler to death. He is eccentric and behaves in a very uncivilised manner for that time: he has Indian animals as pets and gypsies as friends, putting him outside some of the acceptable boundaries of Victorian society.