Narrative Techniques and Construction of the Mystery in The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Creating a mystery is a very complex process because there are certain criteria that one must follow. The author must craft their piece in such a way that the readers are unable to determine the outcome, while still dropping all the right hints to make them try anyways. Conan Doyle was able to keep the readers’ interests in his short story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, while abiding by the guidelines of a mystery. He engages his readers by playfully dropping clues and red herrings that steer them off the path of figuring out the ending. Once the readers reach the end, they are in for a pleasant surprise.
Every mystery must contain clues in order for the detective to piece together the story of what happened and who had committed the crime. A common trend in the Mystery genre is to impose a signifier upon the readers (in the form of a clue) without revealing the signified until later. Conan Doyle enjoys introducing a sign without a meaning to hold his readers’ attention. “Did you observe anything very peculiar about that bed?” “No.” “It was clamped to the floor. Did you ever see a bed fastened like that before?” “I cannot say that I have” (109). In this passage, Holmes asks Watson if he has ever seen a bed fastened like that before. When Watson says that he hasn’t, a red flag rises in the minds of Doyle’s audience. The bed that is fastened is a sign, but the readers have yet to find out why, what it means, and how this relates to the mystery. As his readers flip pages, their hunger to connect the signifier with the signified increases. They are instantly filled with an uneasy feeling that does not leave them until they terminate the story and all the loose ends are tied up. This is how he ensures that his audience will be able to reach the end of his short story, by appealing to the curiosity in every human. They are eager to read on and find the next clue to try to solve the mystery.
Red Herrings are utilized in mysteries to accomplish a goal; to lure the readers away from the actual ending. In making them believe the real killer is someone else or that the means of killing is different from what actually happened, this makes the real explanation even harder to predict. “Ah, and what did you gather from this allusion to a speckled band?” “Sometimes I have thought that it was merely the wild talk of delirium, sometimes that it may have referred to some band of people, perhaps to these very gipsies in the plantation. I do not know whether the spotted handkerchiefs which so many of them wear over their heads might have suggested the strange adjective which she used.” (103). In this passage, the author cleverly masks the real turnout, the poisonous snake bite killing the girl, and replaces it in the readers’ minds as the Gipsies being the killers because they wear “speckled bands” on their heads and that could be what the dying girl meant when she said “It was the band! The speckled band!” (102). He also disguises the word “band” as a group of people (the gipsies) rather than as a band that can wrap around someone, and further yet from the truth of the band being a snake. The readers are filled with delight as they attempt to piece together the story. As the readers come to know the full story, they realize that all the information was there, and that the mention of the gipsies had been the reason that their minds had rejected the possibility of the band being a snake. The attempt to piece together the story is what held the audience’s interest.
It is clear that Conan Doyle understands his audience because he knows how to hold their attention. He employs clues and red herrings to keep the readers guessing and on their toes. Doyle has the ability to convince an audience that they have the mystery figured out, but once the ending is revealed the readers are left with a satisfied feeling even though they were unsuccessful in predicting the end. The outcome makes sense to the readers, which demonstrates that Doyle has played fairly and that he abided by the rules of a mystery.
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