Nineteenth-century England witnessed the emergence of the modern police force, and “The Red-Headed League” is one of many Sherlock Holmes stories that familiarized the public with the new business of solving crimes. Modern police forces didn’t exist in England until 1829, and even then the police were more concerned with preserving public order than investigating crimes committed by unknown perpetrators. Londoners had become more familiar with police and detectives by the time Doyle wrote “The Red-Headed League,” but detectives weren’t especially admired, especially in the wake of the brutal and unsolved Jack the Ripper slayings in the late 1880s. English novelists Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins both wrote novels featuring detectives long before Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes, but their detectives acted more like hyperactive cops than rational professionals.
Doyle makes fun of such detectives in “The Red-Headed League” when Holmes refers to Detective Jones as a brave man but “an absolute imbecile.” Subtly ribbing the contemporary police detectives was Doyle’s way of calling for changes in the profession, particularly the way in which crime solvers worked. Even though Sherlock Holmes does Detective Jones’s work for him, Jones can’t quite bring himself to admit Holmes’s superior crime-solving strategy, remarking instead that Holmes has the potential to be a good detective. Watson’s skepticism of Holmes before readers discover that Holmes was right all along actually lends credence to this new, almost scientific method of solving crimes. Thus Doyle is both playing off the emergence of the detective in public consciousness and trying to stir that same public into demanding more from their police forces.
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