Review: The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

My leisurely stroll through the Holmes canon via Project Gutenberg continues; luckily, I need only to procure myself a copy of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes when the time comes, and I can’t imagine that being too difficult. I’m enjoying it so much to the point of perhaps discovering another fandom; my fellow fen are quite sweet and it’s been booming steadily since the 2009 film. But, of course, my enjoyment doesn’t mean that The Sign of the Four is without its problems.

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes and Dr. Watson are hired by Miss Mary Morstan, a governess who has been receiving strange notes (and pearls!) from an anonymous source. They accompany her to a meeting with her anonymous source, who turns out to be a one Thaddeus Sholto, who claims that his brother, Bartholomew, possesses a treasure that once belonged to her father–a fortune that would turn this governess into one of the wealthiest heiresses in England. But when Bartholomew is discovered dead and the treasure missing, Holmes and Dr. Watson must track down the killer to protect their client.

Let’s get this out of the way first–The Sign of the Four is a very racist novel. I’m going to try and do this without spoiling you, which ought to be interesting, at the very least. One of the villains is Adamanese, and he’s portrayed as the stereotypical bloodthirsty “savage”–he’s also the faithful sidekick, devoting himself to the main villain who once helped him recover from a serious illness. He has no motivation beyond helping his master and general sadism. When they finally meet, Holmes and Watson are struck with how ugly and demonic he looks. It makes the representation of Mormons in A Study in Scarlet look like a solitary snide remark. I can accept it as a product of the times, but it still makes me uncomfortable, since it’s presented as the rightful view instead of solely Watson’s view. (To contrast, there’s a moment where Holmes dismisses the capacity of women; Watson wants to correct him, but doesn’t feel up to the battle.) Be forewarned.

The Sign of the Four develops Holmes and Watson beyond their A Study in Scarlet characterizations; infamously, it starts and ends with Holmes indulging in his cocaine habit, with Watson looking on disapproval, wondering why such a brilliant man would risk his mind like that. Holmes becomes more aloof and wonderfully odd, with strange acquaintances all over town and generally being superior. (At one point, Watson, a little fed up with him, hands him a completely clean watch to take him down a notch. It works.) Watson in love is wonderful. Mary is a calm, rational, and wry young woman–as Watson is writing from the perspective of a happily married man, we occasionally hear Mary’s side of things. My favorite moment occurs when Watson, trying to distract Mary from the grim situation at hand with war stories, accidentally tells her a story where he shoots at a musket with a double-barreled tiger cub; Mary teases him to this day about it. It can get a bit syrupy at moments–particularly their declaration of their love–but I have a soft spot for dorks in love, so it only endeared them to me.

Watson’s voice, as ever, is great fun; a dashing and very capable man who alternately admires and despairs over his amazing but very strange friend. Doyle stays firmly in Watson’s mind throughout the novel; there’s no switch, as in A Study in Scarlet. As we delve deeper into London’s underworld, there’s some honestly creepy imagery; Bartholomew is murdered in a locked room and, at one point, Watson visits a very strange menagerie in order to procure a bloodhound. The atmosphere is certainly improving over the much more straightforward A Study in Scarlet. The plot, as it is, is quite complex; I wish we’d learned some of it outside of the villain’s infodump of a monologue–it’s a short portion of the novel that feels longer, because all of the ground it covered. As Mary’s father is involved, I wish she’d produced a letter or told Holmes and Watson a story about what happened to him; but, alas, it does not happen. As I’m about to embark on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I look forward to seeing if Doyle manages this better in short story format over the novel format of the first two Holmes books.

Bottom line: The Sign of the Four has its problems–it’s quite racist! But this is also the novel where Holmes becomes more aloof and wonderfully odd, acquainted with half the underworld, to the chagrin of Watson, who has fallen in love with the wonderful Mary Morstan. (Their calm, determined relationship is very sweet.) It’s got great atmosphere, but nearly all of the plot is revealed solely through the villain’s monologue, which makes the pace awkward. It would be a respectable entry in the Holmes canon if not for the racism.

I downloaded this free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Sign of the Four

  1. I also had a lot of trouble with the racism in this one, especially because it’s so central to the plot. But I’m glad I read it all the same, and I did enjoy it overall. I really need to FINALLY read the Holmes short stories, since so many people tell me they’re better than the novels!

  2. I’ve only read The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I’d like to read more of Holmes. I’m not a big contemporary mystery person, but I do like the older (dare I say classic, in your presence?) ones. Don’t you love Project Gutenberg? (By the way, the first book I downloaded for my Sony Reader was Lady into Fox!)

  3. Pingback: The Sign of the Four – Arthur Conan Doyle « Ela's Book Blog

  4. If I had let the racist overtones affect me, I would have missed out on reading this, for me, the best of the Sherlock stories. I understand why the theme is in there, but still….great book though!

      • I mean in the sense of affecting me so much so that I wouldn’t read it. The story is so well done, it carries you along, is engaging, and you care about the outcome. The best of C-D’s stories I think.

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Sherlock Holmes – The Sign of Four | Tales of the Marvelous

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