Once again, it’s time to delve into my complete Sherlock Holmes collection for another mystery with the world’s most famous detective. This time, it’s The Sign of Four, sometimes called The Sign of the Four but who really cares, there are four people and they make a sign.
Unlike the more celebrated Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles, I’ve never been fond of The Sign of Four. Where Scarlet has the nostalgic pull of being our introduction to the detective and his sidekick, and Hound is a genuine masterpiece, Sign leaves me unmoved.
For me, Hound aside, Conan-Doyle excels in the short stories and longer works can drag. Both here and in Scarlet he adds to the length of the tale with a second story recounting the events leading up to the crime. It’s a shame, as the present-day part of this story is excellent, with Holmes now almost fully-formed as a crack-addicted genius and Watson as his reliable friend. Indeed, it’s here we find one of Holmes most famous lessons:
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
There’s a reasonably interesting, if well documented, backstory to the publication of The Sign of Four. The story goes that Conan-Doyle and Oscar Wilde both attended a meeting with the magazine owner Joseph Stoddart, who wanted to launch his Lippincott’s magazine in England. Both writers took to their tasks, with the results being The Sign of Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Quite the result for the enterprising American publisher.
The story itself begins with the arrival of Mary Morstan at 221B Baker Street, a quiet lady who has been receiving a gift of a valuable pearl once a year and who’s unknown benefactor now wishes to meet. Along with Holmes and Watson, we’re compelled into a complex narrative of hidden treasure, murder and intrigue. As the clues unravel, Holmes chases down his suspect across London and onto the fastest boats on the Thames for a final high-speed, all-stakes river chase.
Split into two parts, The Sign of Four works much better in pieces than its whole. Despite a well-paced mystery and excellent use of Holmes in the first section, I’m never invested enough to be interested in the villain’s exotic backstory. My preference remains for the more everyday Holmes story, rather than the grand.
It’s also troubling racist in parts, including refences to cannibals and a characterisation of India as either savage (bad) or deferential (good).
Most of all, I never believe Watson’s love story with Mary. Perhaps of its time and coloured by his dual role as character and narrator, the romance feels one-sided and forced until it is suddenly resolved. Mary has since found more character in the BBC Sherlock series, here she could easily be wish-fulfilment for a lonely sidekick and storyteller.
In researching this review, I found the internet now filled with GCSE guides to the novel, potentially further condemning it to lesser status as students steer clear of it beyond exam season. Interestingly, despite featuring as one of his 100 best novels, Robert McCrum doesn’t say a great deal in his own review, though does praise the characterisation and “compelling” story.
There are more than enough moments for Holmes fans to savour in The Sign of Four, despite its overlong format. Conan-Doyle lays groundwork for many successful adventures by developing Holmes into his now familiar self-destructive and more-human-than-you-remember character, one who feels only emptiness to endure when a story is resolved:
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.”
The Sign of Four is one the Guardian’s 100 best novels.
About the Author
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, whom he featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories. Doyle wrote novels beyond Holmes but will always be remembered for his impact on crime writing.