Hilton Cubitt, from Derbyshire, consults Holmes about a series of dancing men picture-messages his wife is receiving. On their wedding-day, she had made Cubitt promise he would ask her nothing about her past, but she now seems to be terrified. Holmes has to decipher the code of the matchstick men and get to the bottom of a dreadful murder which lies behind it.
Holmes is approached by Helen Stoner, who feels threatened by her domineering step-father, Dr Grimesby Roylott. Her sister died mysteriously just before her planned wedding, and Helen has heard again the curious whistle she first heard on the night of her sister's death.Holmes perceives great danger and lays a complicated plan to defeat the threat to the beautiful Helen.
A notice in a newspaper seeks red-headed men, inviting them to join a league which will pay them well - and Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker who responds, finds he is hired and paid generously for spending four hours a day copying an encyclopedia in long hand. When the league is suddenly dissolved, Holmes is asked to find out what has been going on, and he quickly suspects crime. Indeed, behind this curious arrangement lurks Holmes's arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty.
Holmes is asked by the country's Prime Minister to aid in the recovery of a stolen diplomatic letter, which, if published, might lead England into war.