The Sign of the Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

(MobileReference e-book, originally published in 1890)

The Literary Omnivore reviewed this short novel by Conan Doyle recently, reminding me that I had never read it before – I seem to have managed almost all the short stories, but the longer ones, like A Study In Scarlet, aren’t in my collection. This may be because the longer stories are generally packaged up with some of the short stories, leading to overlap (though this may not be a bad thing).

So, The Sign of the Four begins in Baker Street as expected, with Watson presenting Holmes so bored with life that he is injecting himself with cocaine – and has been doing so three times a day with that or morphine. Watson feels impelled to remonstrate, though rather diffidently, since he regards his friend with rather too much respect (and perhaps, even awe) to mention something so personal. But Holmes doesn’t mind this, and their conversation passes into discussion of Holmes’ detective career, and Watson’s writing up of the Jefferson Hope case as A Study in Scarlet, which Holmes denigrates, saying that Watson has sensationalised the events (which does set the tone for all Watson’s subsequent literary endeavours and Holmes’ reception of them).

Rather irritated by this, and Holmes’ insistence that a good deal of information can be inferred even from ordinary objects or leavings, such as tobacco ash, Watson hands his friend a new watch that he has just had cleaned, and which Holmes examines closely. Although Watson at first thinks he has confounded Holmes, he is astonished by how easily his friend is able to deduce the character and habits of Watson’s brother, the previous owner of the watch. As Holmes explains his reasoning, an interruption occurs, and Miss Mary Morstan is shown in.

Miss Morstan evidently strikes Watson favourably as soon as she enters the room:

In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature…

(ch. 2)

Miss Morstan retells a story which began some years before, in 1878, when her father – an army officer stationed in India – came home for leave, and let her know he had arrived in London. Mis Morstan, then living in Edinburgh, travelled down to London to meet him, but he was nowhere to be found – and never has been seen or heard of since then, though almost ten years have passed. But this is not the strangest part of the story: for the last six years, Miss Morstan has received, anonymously by post, a single beautiful pearl, and just that morning has received a letter asking her to be outside the Lyceum Theatre that evening, and stating that she is “a wronged woman, and shall have justice.”

Holmes and Watson accompany Miss Morstan to the theatre as suggested, and they are taken out to the suburbs to a small terraced house where they meet Mr Thaddeus Sholto, son of one of Captain Morstan’s closest friends. He reveals that he and his twin brother Bartholomew have a large treasure from their father which was meant to be shared with Morstan, and that he considers Miss Morstand has a right to a fair share. Thus, he and his visitors travel that evenining to Norwood, where Bartholomew lives in his father’s old house, Pondicherry Lodge. However, when they arrive they find Bartholomew dead, killed by a poisoned dart, the treasure gone, and a mysterious note saying “The Sign of the Four.”

From these beginnings, Holmes investigates the mysterious events (aided by Watson), deducing the conspirators who stole the treasure and killed Bartholomew, eventually running them to ground. Only then is the solution to the mystery found, when the culprit confesses. It’s interesting how Holmes makes his deductions based on what he can see and smell, and they lead him to a steam launch; it’s by tracking down the launch, aided by his Irregulars (a band of street urchins), which eventually let him come to the motive. It’s a change from some of the later stories, in which Holmes often speculates about the motive. The details are given clearly and the search and chase which follows as Holmes and Scotland Yard – in the person of Athelney Jones – track down the malefactors is exciting.

As a modern-day reader it’s interesting to see how Holmes and Watson’s journey reveals a London that is very different from today’s. They disembark from a boat at Millbank Penitentionary, for example, a building no longer in existence, and go to the post office on Great Peter Street (which is not far from where I work!).

Watson falls in love with Mary in this novel, though at first he thinks that he is unworthy of her – if she is to be an heiress, what would she want with a half-pay Army surgeon? The trust and love they both have for one another is beautifully done, and one comes away with the sensation that Watson’s not merely reporting his own experiences.

One of the conspirators, an Andamanese, as he’s called by Conan Doyle, is described in rude terms by Watson: he is a “savage, distorted creature,” with features “deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty,” and as an “unhallowed dwarf.” The other man, British, is treated in the narrative with more respect: he is strong and powerful, though he shrieks out curses at the following boat. I suspect that ‘Tonga’ is a Jarawa (as they are called in M. M. Kaye’s Death in the Andamans), one of a pygmy native people who had (and still have) very little contact with the outside world. Doyle exaggerates the habits and behaviour of Tonga in order to make him a savage unversed in civilised behaviour and thus allow the other conspirator “off the hook” somewhat, morally speaking. The other members of the ‘Four’ are Indians, and are treated with much more respect (though they appear only in Small’s narrative). I guess also that Doyle had probably never met a Jarawa, and this probably explains the overblown language used to describe Tonga.

In summary, apart from all the explanation which Small retells after his capture, this is an exciting story which holds the attention with chase scenes by steam launch as well as the cerebral art of detection which Holmes does so well, and which Doyle makes appear so simple and obvious.

This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Crime fiction, Fiction, Read on my Kindle, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Sign of the Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. The racist language here is offputting—oh, the awkwardness of outdated views. But Mary and Watson are just… adorable. (I especially love her in later short stories, where she basically hands off Watson to Holmes whenever.)

    • Ela says:

      It’s not just that it’s racist, it’s such savage language – I mean, “unhallowed dwarf” sounds more like invective flung at someone, rather than a description. Still, I do like that there’s loyalty between Small and his Indian co-conspirators.

      And Mary and Watson are lovely – not having read this one before, I really did like the way they found each other.

  2. Pingback: REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes (film, 2009) | Ela's Book Blog

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