Review: The Sign Of Four

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign Of Four

I bought a copy of the collected novels second-hand many years ago… many editions now exist of the novels and short story collections from a variety of publishers. Here’s a handy primer to the canonical works: can pick up copies pretty much anywhere!
I reread this novel as I was part of the Bloody Scotland Book Club panel on 29 March, 2023. You can view the panel discussion on the Bloody Scotland YouTube channel here:

First, (one version of) the official blurb: The Sign Of Four introduces the reader to Miss Mary Morstan and centres around the mysterious disappearance of Mary’s father, Captain Morstan. He has been missing for the past ten years and for the past few years, after answering a newspaper advert looking for her, Mary has received an anonymous gift of priceless pearls on the anniversary of his disappearance. Mary solicits the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance and the identity of her anonymous benefactor. Holmes and Watson are soon deep into a dangerous and complex case involving stolen treasure, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and a secret pact between four convicts. 

Even if you’ve never read a word of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, you’re almost certainly going to be aware of the world’s only consulting detective, his friend and chronicler, Dr John Watson, and his address, 221b Baker Street.

Films and TV series based – closely and not so closely – on the stories abound, as well as stage plays, pastiches, homages (such as Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series) or officially-sanctioned work, such as the Shadows Over Baker Street short story collection mixing Holmes and HP Lovecraft-esque horror (Neil Gaiman’s glorious A Study In Emerald is free online) and Anthony Horowitz’s novels The House Of Silk and Moriarty. But there’s nothing like settling back with the originals.

The first appearance of Holmes and Watson was in A Study In Scarlet in 1887. The Sign Of Four was the second story, arriving in 1890, and it dives straight in with an arresting scene: the administration of a seven per cent solution of cocaine as Holmes is in the doldrums – “I cannot live without brainwork”, he tells Watson, who firmly disapproves of his companion’s actions.

But Holmes is soon able to put away the needle as a visitor arrives. Miss Mary Morstan’s father went missing a decade ago. Mysterious parcels began to arrive six years ago, each including a large pearl. Now she has received a letter offering a meeting to help her get “justice”, and wants Holmes and Watson to accompany her.

As we travel to the rendezvous – and to a variety of other places later on – we get a sense of Victorian London in descriptions that are brief but enlightening, and give a sense of atmosphere both emotional and literal, as the weather gets plenty of mentions.

The plot is, in the cold light of day, pretty preposterous: a cache of treasure from an exotic land, a man with a wooden leg seeking vengeance, a sketch marked with “The Sign Of The Four”. There’s a chase through suburban London, and another on the Thames. And there are the now-familiar but then still fresh elements: Holmes declares the case almost cracked while Watson remains baffled; the police are buffoons; Holmes’ reveals his range of friends; the Baker Street Irregulars are employed; the master of disguise pops up. It’s no wonder these stories were so popular, they are even now so sharp and light and fun, though our protagonists deal with unpleasant people and actions.

The structure and pacing of the novel is also smartly done to my mind – a slim 90 pages in my edition, it crams in plenty of mystery and action, but also leaves space for hearty breakfasts, backstory and explanations of how everything fits together. There’s plenty of forward motion, but the reader never feels overwhelmed with information.

As discussed in the March 2023 episode of the Bloody Scotland Book Club, brace yourself for some pretty egregious chunks of racism, in particular when discussing the accomplice to our main bad guy. Various writers – including the mighty Agatha Christie – are currently having their novels edited for such issues; should Doyle get the same treatment? I prefer to give it a pass for being written in a very different time to today, and concentrate on the rest of the story. But if that’s not your preference, perhaps this is one to swerve.

In the end, of course Holmes solves the case with a flourish – and is immediately bored again. Meanwhile, Watson has plenty to occupy him, with a budding romance on the cards.

Each novel and short story is complete in of itself, so you can start anywhere, but I do urge you to dip in somewhere and see where so many tropes of crime fiction – the genius and the sidekick; foolish cops v smart amateurs; the inconsequential detail that solves the case – really got going. They’re history lessons, but they’re also cracking reads.

(Doyle had real inspiration for Holmes in Dr Joseph Bell, a surgeon and tutor at Edinburgh University’s medical school, where Doyle trained. Bell emphasised to his students the importance of close observation; that everything could be a clue to the person’s illness or cause thereof. Forensic science and CSI on TV can now tell us many things from small details, but Holmes got there first.)

Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KStJ DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a British writer and physician. He created the character Sherlock Holmes in 1887 for A Study in Scarlet, the first of four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes and Dr Watson. Other than Holmes stories, his works include fantasy and science fiction stories, and humorous tales about a Napoleonic soldier, as well as plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction, and historical novels.

Just some of the many faces of Sherlock Holmes….

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