The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1890
Sherlock Holmes #2
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Also titled The Sign of the Four

I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.

The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.

The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.

Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.

The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.

I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.

As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.

I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.

The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.

I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.

The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.

In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.

In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.

4 thoughts on “The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. Despite being a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I wasn’t impressed much by this one.

    ‘The Valley of Fear’, for my money, is the best Doyle. It invents a famous trope which would go on to be used multiple times in GAD, plays perfectly fair and yet hoodwinked me twice!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. At some point I will find a mystery blogger who likes mysteries …

    Actually, I never much cared for this one, even as a wee bairn. There isn’t a lot of Holmes that is really great, one novel and about 25 stories. But of course that corpus is unsurpassed. This just isn’t part of it.

    Like

  3. Out of the four SH novels I would say The Sign of Four is my favourite (though I do need to re-read it). My problems with A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear are the way they have minimal detection at the start and then the rest of the novel is simply a retrospective story. I felt TSOF suffered from this less. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one only read for the first time last year, but it didn’t really catch my interest as much. I think everyone pretty much agrees that SH is best in SS format.

    Liked by 1 person

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