In the twelve stories known collectively as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
, each of Holmes’s clients has undergone some previous experience that has disturbed and perplexed the character. Although their enigmas may not involve criminality, often they have to do with either theft or murder. The solving of these enigmas requires quest, revelation, reconstruction, disclosure, and dispersal of justice. Either punishment, in the form of arrest or death, or forgiveness on the part of Holmes without informing the police concludes the story. Five of the stories involve no criminal action, whereas the other seven do. In two of the stories, Holmes personally fails to accomplish his purpose.
Two of the most famous tales typify the contrasting narrative poles of the collection. "A Scandal in Bohemia" involves no criminality, its investigation poses no danger to the life of the detective, and its conclusion ends in the detective’s apparent failure. In contrast, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" involves criminal action (murder and an attempted murder), its investigation is fraught with danger to the detective, and it ends with the clear accomplishment of his purpose: to save the life of his client and to see justice rendered to the criminal.
In "A Scandal in Bohemia," an English crown prince (posing as a Bohemian), recently engaged to be married to a princess, hires Holmes to retrieve a photograph from the hands of his ex-mistress, Irene Adler, an American-born, beautiful former prima donna of the opera. She has threatened to break up his engagement by mailing a photograph taken of the two of them together, along with his letters, to the princess’ parents. Although Holmes arranges to raise a false alarm of fire in Irene’s home in order to be able to search for the hiding place of the photograph and letters, she outwits him and escapes with the incriminating evidence in her possession. Later, she informs him that she has no intention of using these items to disrupt the prince’s proposed marriage, explaining that "I love and am loved by a better man than he." As a result of this experience, Irene Adler becomes the "one woman" to bachelor Holmes. When he mentions her in the future, he always refers to her as "the woman."
In "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," a young woman, Miss Helen Stoner, hires Holmes to investigate the uncanny death of her twin sister, Julia, and to save her from the menacing danger that seems to be threatening her own life. Helen informs Holmes that several days before her sister’s death, Julia apparently heard from her bedroom a low whistle in the middle of the night and that when she was dying, her last words were, "Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!" Helen also expresses fear of her stepfather, the Anglo-Indian Dr. Grimesby Roylott, a man noted for his ill temper, enormous strength, and penchant for violence. For his initial investigation, Holmes concludes that Roylott murdered Julia and intends to murder Helen as well in order to inherit the women’s property.
Holmes and Watson visit the Roylott residence, Stoke Moran, in Surrey. Learning from Helen that the doctor has gone to town, Holmes makes a close examination of the bedrooms in the house. Finding that Helen now occupies Julia’s room, he requests that she leave one of its windows unlatched that night and that she sleep in her former room. Around midnight, Holmes and Watson secretly enter Julia’s room and await developments. Eventually, they detect a lantern light through the connecting ventilator and then hear a low hissing sound. Holmes lights a match and lashes furiously with a cane at the bell cord. The two hear a "horrible cry" from Roylott’s room, followed by silence. When they enter the doctor’s room, they find him sitting dead in a chair. Wrapped around his head is a "peculiar yellow band with brownish speckles," which Holmes readily identifies as the "speckled band." This deadly swamp adder, driven through the ventilator by Holmes’s attack, turned on its master at the other end. The story closes with Holmes’s acknowledgment of his indirect responsibility for Roylott’s death, though he cannot say it will weigh heavily on his conscience.