The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
Synopsis: As a dense yellow fog swirls through the streets of London, a deep melancholy has descended on Sherlock Holmes, who sits in a cocaine-induced haze at 221B Baker Street. His mood is only lifted by a visit from a beautiful but distressed young woman Mary Morstan, whose father vanished ten years before. Four years later she began to receive an exquisite gift every year: a large, lustrous pearl. Now she has had an intriguing invitation to meet her unknown benefactor and urges Holmes and Watson to accompany her. And in the ensuing investigation which involves a wronged woman, a stolen hoard of Indian treasure, a wooden-legged ruffian, a helpful dog and a love affair even the jaded Holmes is moved to exclaim, ‘Isn’t it gorgeous!’ (From Amazon.com)
Story – One of the more complicated and intricate stories, “The Sign of the Four” tells the story of corruption and treasure in the East India Trading Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
It is the first example Holmes being enlisted by someone outside of the police force, in the form of Miss Mary Morstan. She provides Holmes with just the kind of puzzle he’s been waiting for and proceeds to unravel the bizarre case in his usual erratic fashion.
In the process they meet some very singular characters that are involved in the case as well as Althelney Jones of the Yard who is quite the personality and has little faith in Holmes’ deductive methods. Naturally, this proves unwise as he makes leaps and bounds using his usual resources to uncover the sordid past of Miss Morstan’s father and the origins of the strange treasure she has been receiving.
Once the culprits are in their sights, they give chase across the Thames; the first illustration of Watson taking an active part in procuring a criminal with the help of his trusty revolver. It’s one of the more active captures ever recorded in the books, emphasising the peril and the rare moment where Holmes isn’t in control of the situation.
After the villain is in the custody of the police, the majority of the final chapter is devoted to his story, recounting what exactly happened back in India and how these grisly murders are connected with their client. It is much in the same vain as “A Study in Scarlet” where the bulk of the backstory is put across in one go, with the last several paragraphs being spared for tying up the case. I must admit that, unlike the Mormon backstory of the previous story, I found this one to be rather less engaging. It may be my inner Watson speaking, but I found the romantic revenge element of “Scarlet” to be more appealing than hearing about how these four figures sought out a treasure and then were betrayed. It certainly has its merits but I just felt that it maybe went on for a bit too long and it was hard to follow.
While the criminal is captured and detained, it is make a nice change to see that not everything is neatly wrapped up. It is satisfying enough that the culprit was caught, the realism comes through in the fact that the treasure is lost to the dank depths of the Thames.
Characters – Seeing as how Watson and Holmes were initially set up in “A Study of Scarlet”, I would refer you to that review for a generalisation on their characters, however there are plenty of aspects that are developed in this story too. Firstly, as I mentioned above, we have Watson’s more pro-active participation. While before he was more of an observer; a shadow of Holmes, here he proves crucial thanks to his army background and his general courage as a human being. It is a quality that often makes itself known in the future and which Holmes relies heavily upon (as he doesn’t pay too much attention to his own safety!).
As for Holmes, “The Sign of the Four” is the first introduction to one of his particular vices, namely his use of cocaine. While cocaine wasn’t an illegal drug in the 1880’s, it still wasn’t looked upon in a positive light. The doctor, naturally, is not best pleased but Holmes is not easily swayed. It is just one of many flaws that our “hero” has and I like the fact that it isn’t made into a big deal, it is just part of who he is; he is far from perfect, but we accept that. It also shows his “black moods” which he mentions in passing at their introduction; showing just how quickly his demeanour can change from enthusiastic and bright to completely lethargic and moody.
It’s also interesting to see the developing relationship between the two. There is a moment early on where, due to said black mood, Holmes is less inclined to temper what he says, resulting in him repeatedly upsetting Watson. The first, criticising the writing of “A Study in Scarlet” because of its overly romantic retelling, as opposed to focusing on the data and deductive techniques; and secondly, by reciting his knowledge of Watson’s brother without giving a thought to how it might make the doctor feel. It is an important example of how Holmes doesn’t quite function on the same level as everyone else; where the information is there for the collecting and telling and emotions don’t come into play. Once again, it comes down to Watson to ground him, in a sense and make him more human.
The client, Mary Morstan, is a bright young woman who catches Watson’s eye immediately. Throughout the story, she stays involved with their pursuit and forms an attachment with the doctor. Holmes is impressed with her mind, approving of how she delivered her case and the details with which she could recall, some of which proved invaluable. However, further to Holmes’ cold, reasoning personality, when he hears that Watson and Mary are to be wed, he is filled with disdain. It is the first sign we have of his disregard for the softer emotions and his disinclination towards women (although he claimed to approve of Mary so far as her mind was concerned). It seemed to be a rather strange device to break the bond between Holmes and Watson before it had really even got going by marrying him off but, considering she becomes such a big part of Watson’s life, she barely makes another appearance in the entire series, save for a few lines of dialogue and some general references.
Writing Style – Once again told from the view point of Dr Watson, we are shown what it is like to see Holmes in one of his moods from an outside perspective and to see how his brain leaps from one situation to another while struggling to find the connection until it is explained. We also understand the relationship between himself and Mary, how they are almost drawn together during the perilous situation and the thrill of new love. Because of this one-sided perspective, we are never entirely sure what Holmes’ opinions are of their sudden engagement, save for the fact that he denounces all such relationships as a hindrance. It is until much later on, in the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, that we find out through a story narrated by Holmes himself exactly what he thought of the decision.
While the last chapter is mostly made up of the story of Jonathan Small, unlike the retelling of the Jefferson Hope’s tale in “Scarlet”, this is told in real time as a recounting rather than a flashback. As such, the narrative is occasionally interrupted by Holmes asking a question to clarify certain points, which I personally found rather helpful when it felt like I was drowning in information!
Other Points – Once again, another one written in my home town but I am slightly less fond of this one. It has also been televised numerous times in order to explore the relationship between Watson and Mary. Most notably, Mary Morstan has been used in the recent Guy Ritchie movie, although her introduction was changed in that she wasn’t a client and Holmes is ever reluctant to meet her and face up to the fact that Watson is leaving him for her. It is a very interesting take on the elements that aren’t really addressed in the book.
Worth Reading Y/N? – Yes, because it is a Sherlock Holmes story and has one of the better chase scenes and an interesting lead-up. But it is certainly one of my least favourites of all the books. The two main reasons for this would probably be 1) I just found the backstory rather confusing and hard to stay focused on, instead wanting to get back to the present day and the conclusion and 2) Mary. I don’t doubt that I have been entirely swayed by the 2009 movie and how her inclusion becomes something of a divide between Holmes and Watson but, in itself, I just find the sudden announcement of their engagement totally out of left field. This is probably more an era thing, as it was not unusual for people in the Victorian era to just marry within weeks of meeting each other but I found it to be quite jarring. However, I don’t actually have anything against Mary herself, she is definitely one of the more fleshed out female characters of the series and a smart woman in her own right.
Favourite Quote – “’The division seems rather unfair,’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit; pray what remains for you?’ ‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine bottle.’ And he stretched his long, white hand up for it.”