Sherlock Holmes: Three Short Stories

The Red-Headed League
Illustration of “The Red-Headed League” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After school started again, I fell a bit behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, in part because I needed to finish our all-school summer reading book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As of today, I’m all caught up, having read “The Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League.” I had read “The Blue Carbuncle” some time back but neglected to blog about it.

“The Blue Carbuncle” takes place at Christmas and involves the loss of a large, blue jewel. An innocent man is accused of stealing the jewel. After the jewel is found in the crop of a Christmas goose (geese don’t have crops, by the way), Holmes deduces how the theft was carried out and by whom.

In “The Copper Beeches,” a young woman consults Holmes over whether she should accept a governess job that seems too good to be true. The pay is three times as high as typical pay, but she will need to cut off her long chestnut hair, wear a blue dress, and sit in a window. Discomfited by the odd requests, but attracted by the pay, the client retains Holmes’s help after finding a hidden room in an unused wing of the house.

“The Red-Headed League” is the story of a mysterious beneficence offered to redheaded men in exchange for light work four hours a day. Jabez Wilson consults Holmes after showing up for this work only to see a cardboard sign indicating the League has been dissolved. Holmes quickly deduces that Wilson has been taken in and that a more serious crime is about to take place.

All three of these stories are classics, frequently filmed or otherwise anthologized. I enjoyed all three. It had been a long time since I had read them. All three are excellent examples of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his mystery-writing powers. If forced to pick a favorite of the three, I’d say “The Copper Beeches” for its atmosphere.

None of the three is explicitly the focus of any BBC Sherlock episodes on their own, but the deduction competition in the episode “The Empty Hearse” has a phrenology reference similar to the one in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Other than that minor reference, I can’t recall any references to either “The Copper Beeches” or “The Red-Headed League” in the series.

“The Blue Carbuncle” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Copper Beeches” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Red-Headed League” Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Charles Augustus Milverton.”

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Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost

I was a big fan of the series Twin Peaks, which I watched faithfully each week until some time into the second season, after which I felt the series took a nosedive (I did ultimately watch all the episodes at some point last year). I read Laura Palmer’s secret diary (and wished I hadn’t). I watched Fire Walk With Me (and wished I hadn’t). When it was announced that the series would return, I was excited because I thought I’d have some answers about what, exactly, was going on. Well, if you watched Twin Peaks: The Return, maybe you liked it. Maybe after it was over, all you could think was “WTF did I just watch?” (That was me, by the way.) I think I did like parts of it, but in general, I can’t really recommend it because I felt it dropped too many threads and didn’t resolve much of anything. I was so frustrated by the ending of the series, that I decided to read Mark Frost’s book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, hoping it might offer some answer. I also decided I would check it out of the library rather than buy it because I had a feeling it wouldn’t be something I’d need to own. I have to say that it did explain the series a bit, but not enough.

The book presents itself as a dossier compiled by a “mysterious” person the FBI refers to as “the Archivist.” No one who has watched the series will likely be surprised by the Archivist’s identity, but they might be surprised by a few of the revelations the book offers. Recorded weirdness in the area near Twin Peaks dates all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and the book implicates everything and everyone in this weirdness, from aliens and UFOs, the Air Force, Richard Nixon, Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, and Douglas Milford, who you may remember married a young siren named Lana in the original series and died on his wedding night—it’s strongly implied sex with Lana did poor Dougie in. However, much of the series still remains unexplained. Frost has another book coming out on Halloween, and perhaps this final tome will put the mysteries to bed, but I am starting to feel about the Twin Peaks franchise the same way I feel about Anne Rice.

Let me explain.

I really loved Interview with the Vampire. I rushed right out and read the rest of the Vampire Chronicles that had been published at the time. I also loved The Vampire Lestat. I didn’t love The Queen of the Damned, but when I enjoyed The Tale of the Body Thief, I decided maybe The Queen of the Damned was a fluke. Then came the others. MerrickThe Vampire ArmandMemnoch the Devil (which remains the only book I’ve thrown across the room). I couldn’t finish Blackwood Farm. I decided maybe I should quit Anne Rice because I was disappointed time and time again. But then I’d give her another chance. Finally, I gave Prince Lestat a chance, and it was just bloody awful. I kept trying because I kept hoping Rice would return to the storytelling I enjoyed in the first few books I read, but after being disappointed time and again, I was forced to conclude that I should quit Anne Rice. And I was a big fan. I used to check her fan website for news nearly every day in 1995 or thereabouts.

I won’t give too much away because part of the fun of reading this “dossier” is discovering the creepy history of Twin Peaks and trying to figure out how some of the events in Twin Peaks: The Return fit in. For example, this crazy episode. No, it still doesn’t make complete sense, but it makes a little more sense after I read this book. Also, some of the characters’ histories, ret-conned or no, definitely take on more significance than they appeared to have in the original series. The book also has some inconsistencies, both internally and connected to the series. I always find it frustrating when that happens. The book definitely goes in a more X-Files direction than the original series did.

Honestly, some of the episodes of Twin Peaks, both the original series and The Return, remain some of the creepiest things I’ve seen on TV, and for my money, villains don’t come much scarier than the ones you find on Twin Peaks. But I admit my patience with the franchise may be at an end—not that it’s clear that Lynch and Frost plan to continue.

So am I going to give Twin Peaks another chance with this book on Halloween? Probably. I mean, I still have too many questions about what the hell I watched this summer. But let’s just say I’ll be wary of anything else that comes down the pike if this next book disappoints as much as the series. And as I did with this book, I’ll be checking it out of the library. I’m wary to say the least.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


R. I. P. XIII am counting this book as my first selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge, as I found it sufficiently creepy (just like the series) to be an R. I. P. read.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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R. I. P. Challenge XII

R. I. P. XIIIt’s my favorite time of year again. Fall, and the R. I. P. Challenge! I am late signing up because I didn’t realize that the challenge had permanently been transferred to Estella’s Revenge. You can access the sign-up post through this link.

I don’t really know what I want to read yet. I have a few ideas, as I have been thinking about books for the challenge, but as usual, I don’t really want to commit to titles because I like the flexibility of grabbing something that interests me.

I am going, as usual, with Peril the First: “Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (our very broad definitions) of R. I. P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shirley Jackson or Tananarive Due … or anyone in between.”

I don’t believe I will participate in the group read.

Who is with me?

 

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Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hound of the Baskervilles
Illustration for The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget for The Strand

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the fourth and final novel in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It’s one of the most memorable stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and as such, is one of the most frequently adapted stories. Dr. James Mortimer consults Sherlock Holmes regarding the mysterious case of a legendary curse on the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and his heir and nephew will soon arrive from Canada to claim his inheritance. Dr. Mortimer hopes young Henry Baskerville will not also inherit the Baskerville family curse. Holmes agrees to take the case, but even before Henry Baskerville leaves London for his Devonshire estate, strange things happen. Someone seems to be following him, and one of his shoes turns up missing. Holmes sends Watson on to Baskerville Hall with Henry Baskerville and asks Watson to keep him updated regarding events until he can extricate himself from a case. Watson soon discovers that there may be some truth the family legend of a vicious dog that hunts Baskervilles, and he also discovers the dog may not be the only mysterious being hiding on the moor.

This story is easily one of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It has everything that Conan Doyle does well, including an atmospheric setting, suspense and mystery, and a hint of the supernatural. It also refrains from including some of the things Conan Doyle doesn’t do as well, such as exotic settings (India, America). Conan Doyle plants enough clues that many astute readers will begin to suspect the truth behind the mystery, but not so many that it feels obvious to everyone. It’s easily the best of Conan Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels, and it ranks among the best of his Sherlock Holmes stories in general for this reader. The setting of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moor is captured well, and it perhaps the setting that is most remembered about this story.

The BBC series Sherlock adapted this story in the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville.” In this modern adaptation, Sherlock and Watson take on a case at Baskerville, a military research facility. Henry Knight claims his father was killed by a gigantic hound on the moor, but it turns out that the hounds are images produced as the result of mind-altering drugs, and H.O.U.N.D. was a secret government project adapting the drugs as chemical weapons. Because this story is one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss has said he felt he needed to be more careful to keep the most well-known aspects of the story intact. The story is, however, updated to reflect modern concerns.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the twenty-sixth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Blue Carbuncle.”

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Sherlock Holmes: “The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Cardboard Box,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Engineer's Thumb
Illustration for “The Engineer’s Thumb by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After finishing “The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Cardboard Box,” I am caught up on the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It’s strange that these two stories would fall one after the other in the chronology as both feature grisly dismembered appendages.

“The Engineer’s Thumb” is unique in that Watson first encounters a mystery that he brings to Sherlock Holmes rather than the other way around, which is more typical. Watson receives a patient whose thumb has been severed—the patient says purposely and with murderous intent—and he takes Victor Hatherley, the unfortunate engineer of the title, to Sherlock Holmes so that his friend can look into the man’s case. Hatherley recounts his story to Holmes, and it is clear the man was lucky to escape with his life after discovering an illegal counterfeit operation. This story is unique also in that Holmes does not bring the criminals to justice, as the remote house where they carried out their operation has burned and they have escaped.

In “The Cardboard Box,” Holmes is consulted because a woman named Susan Cushing has received a mysterious package addressed to “S. Cushing” containing two ears, and she can’t imagine why on earth anyone would send her such a ghastly package unless it is a couple of disgruntled former boarders who happened to be medical students. Holmes deduces that the package was not meant for the Susan, but for her sister Sarah, who until recently lived with the woman. He also deduces that one of the ears belongs to a third sister Mary, based on its similarity to those of Susan. With a few quick deductions, he nabs the culprit, who confesses all.

Both of these stories are a bit more grisly than is typical for Sherlock Holmes stories, and both contain surprises, but I wouldn’t rate either among the best I’ve read. The BBC Sherlock series doesn’t allude to either story that I can recall. Also, it appears that Conan Doyle has mixed up his chronology, as Watson is living at Baker Street during “The Cardboard Box,” supposedly after he has married Mary. I’m not going to theorize that there was trouble in the Watson marriage. Looks like a simple goof to me.

“The Cardboard Box” does have an interesting and introspective ending, furnished by Sherlock Holmes:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

“The Engineer’s Thumb” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Cardboard Box” Rating: ★★★★☆

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is the final novel in the chronology, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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Sherlock Holmes: “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Man with the Twisted Lip
Illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m behind in the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In an effort to try to catch up a bit, I read two stories this week, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” when Lestrade consults the detective after the murder of a landowner in Herefordshire. The murdered man’s son looks guilty, but Holmes doesn’t believe the son is the culprit. Using footprint analysis and a quick inspection of the grounds, Holmes affirms the son couldn’t have killed his father and unravels the mystery.

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes has gone undercover to determine what has happened to Neville St. Clair. Watson discovers Holmes in disguise in an opium den, where he has gone to retrieve a patient, who also happens to be the husband of Mary Watson’s friend Kate Whitney. Watson is shocked to see Holmes in such a place but quickly recovers when Holmes offers him the opportunity to be involved in the case of the missing Mr. St. Clair. Mrs. St. Clair is sure her husband is alive after receiving a letter from him that was posted after he went missing. A beggar named Hugh Boone has been arrested under suspicion of being involved in St. Clair’s disappearance, as Boone was in a room in that same opium den in which Mrs. St. Clair clearly saw her husband from a window. Holmes seems stumped by the case for a time but resolves the matter at last.

Of these two stories, I liked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” better, though both were fairly good. The opening of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is so compelling and well-written.

Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D. D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of, and for many years he continued to be a slave to the drug, an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives. I can see him now, with yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man.

I can’t find any reference to “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” in the BBC series Sherlock, but the story does involve a common trope in Sherlock Holmes stories—murder in the countryside, the most obvious suspect didn’t do it. However, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is alluded to in the episode “His Last Vow,” when Watson discovers Sherlock in a crack house similar to the opium den in the short story. He is undercover for a case, but Watson isn’t having it. As an interesting aside, opium wasn’t illegal when the story is set. It was definitely associated with the seedy underbelly of society, but the opium den in the story is a perfectly legal business. By the time in which the Sherlock series is set, such an establishment would definitely be illegal, and the dangers of drug use would be more widely known. I always appreciated that Conan Doyle’s Watson expressed disapproval of drug use even when it was legal and encouraged Sherlock Holmes to stop using cocaine.

As an interesting aside, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is also the story with the inconsistency regarding Watson’s name. He is usually called John Watson, but Mary calls him James in this story. It’s probably an oversight on Conan Doyle’s part, but much has been made of the confusion, which Conan Doyle apparently never addressed. Some have theorized that Mary calls him James because his middle name is Hamish, which is a variant of James. He is known as John H. Watson elsewhere. In the BBC Sherlock series, Watson tells Sherlock and Irene Adler his middle name is Hamish if they’re looking for baby names.

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Man with the Twisted Lip” Rating: ★★★★★

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-second and twenty-third stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” which I will read with “The Cardboard Box” in order to catch up completely.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Stock-Broker’s Clerk, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Stock-Broker's Clerk
Illustration for “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” is a slight narrative concerning the strange behavior of two men who have engaged the employment of Mr. Hall Pycroft. Pycroft is mystified by his employers’ actions and demeanor, so he seeks the help of Sherlock Holmes to determine what is at the bottom of it all and what the two men might truly want. Sherlock Holmes visits Watson and asks if he would be interested in accompanying him to Birmingham to help solve the mystery. Watson, newly married and establishing a medical practice, agrees to allow his neighbor to take on his patients in his absence and sets off at once.

There isn’t a whole lot to this story, though the characterization is interesting. Pycroft is portrayed as fairly sharp, and Watson makes a point of observing that he is “Cockney” and that Cockney Londoners have contributed a great deal to English society in an interesting effort to skewer ideas about class that were prevalent at the time when Conan Doyle was writing (and, for that matter, probably still are). But there’s the tiny antisemitic reference in there, too, as Pycroft describes his employer’s nose. Basically, at its heart, this story makes use of a trope that Conan Doyle sometimes employs—the convoluted hoax. Holmes doesn’t actually do a whole lot in this one because the case is solved by the police, for a change, before he can get to the bottom of it.

I wouldn’t put this up there among my favorites; it doesn’t leave much of an impression. I believe the BBC series Sherlock makes a couple of references to this story. Watson does establish a practice after he thinks Sherlock has died, and what the viewer sees is not too different from what Watson describes in this story. I seem to recall an episode in which Sherlock visits John and makes deductions about his having been ill, but now that I’m trying to find the episode, I can’t. I may be conflating it with a similar incident I’ve already read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is twenty-first story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Silver Blaze
Illustration for “Silver Blaze” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” takes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson out to the Dartmoor countryside to investigate the case of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Watson has been following the sensational case in the newspaper and is unsurprised when Sherlock decides to become involved in the investigation. Once in King’s Pyland, Holmes discovers that a man named Fitzroy Simpson is suspected of having murdered Straker, but Sherlock Holmes is not sure at all that the police have the right man. A quick investigation of the scene where Straker’s body was found coupled with an investigatory stroll out on the moor with Watson convinces Holmes that his deductions are correct.

I really enjoyed this story. The location in Dartmoor was a refreshing change of pace for Holmes and Watson, and the mystery was compact and unfolded well. The writing was fun, too. I read this story so many years ago that I had forgotten it was the inspiration for the title of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeChristopher Boone, the protagonist of Haddon’s novel, loves Sherlock Holmes and that particular book begins with an investigation of the murder of his neighbor’s dog. In the context of this story, Holmes points out that it is odd that the dog in the stables did not bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

To be honest, if I had remembered this story years ago when I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I might have figured out the mystery in that book sooner, too. This is one of the better Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read for this reading challenge, and it’s a particularly good display of Holmes’s deductive techniques. I can’t recall seeing any elements of it in the BBC series Sherlock, but those lines between Sherlock and Detective Gregory above would have been brilliant coming from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rupert Graves or Martin Freeman. If they make more episodes, I hope they will return to this short story.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is twentieth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration for The Sign of Four from The Bristol Observer

The Sign of Four is the third novel and the nineteenth story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. This novel introduces Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan and develops Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction.

Mary Morstan seeks Sherlock Holmes’s help after receiving a mysterious message from a stranger. The stranger has sent her single pearls from a great treasure and promises that her wealth will be even greater if she agrees to meet with him. Holmes agrees that she should go, and he and Watson decide to accompany her. They arrive at the house of the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, the son of Major Sholto, who served with Mary’s father in India. However, Thaddeus Sholto’s timing in contacting Mary couldn’t have been better, as his brother Bartholomew is mysteriously killed that evening, and it looks like only Sherlock Holmes can prove Thaddeus Sholto’s innocence and solve the case of their father’s missing treasure that Thaddeus promised he and his brother had found and had agreed to share with Mary. In the meantime, Holmes must deal with bungling police officers and Watson’s infatuation with their client as well as a slippery duo he believes has absconded with the treasure.

This novel was better than both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, which I previously read for this challenge. Both of those novels suffered from Conan Doyle’s lack of understanding of America and Americans, though it’s also true that this novel suffers from his lack of understanding of India. I’m sure for his era, he might even have been progressive, but I can’t help but notice the racism when he writes about India, and it’s come up a few times in the stories so far. His depiction of Tonga, the Andaman Islands native who blows poison darts in attempts to kill (sometimes successfully) is particularly problematic, though his depiction of Jonathan Small’s confederates, the others that comprise the “Four” of the novel’s title, is not much better. It might just be me, but this kind of story seems to be one that Conan Doyle writes with some frequency: a mysterious missing treasure from an exotic locale, terrible murder, conspiracy, all bound together. For its type, this novel is a decent one, and it was a fairly quick read.

There are several references to The Sign of Four in the BBC Sherlock series. The episode “The Sign of Three” in which Mary Morstan and John Watson marry is the most obvious. Major James Sholto, a character in the episode, had been Watson’s commander in Afghanistan and had been the subject of death threats. At one point, someone does try to kill him by means of a stiletto blade, which might be meant to remind the viewer of the blow darts. In addition, the feeling that things will change between Sherlock and Watson because of his marriage is palpable at the end of both the episode and the novel. The references to A.G.R.A. turn out not to be treasure, but Mary’s true identity as an assassin, which Sherlock discovers in “His Last Vow.” She is the “R” in the initials, and she believes that the other three had been killed, which is similar to Jonathan Small’s notion that the other three members of his treasure confederacy will not be able to access it because they are imprisoned for life. Bill Wiggins is also alluded to in “His Last Vow,” though in that episode he is a drug addict rather than the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. In the episode “The Six Thatchers,” someone is trying to track down an A.G.R.A. memory stick like Mary’s, and she discovers that one of her former colleagues did not actually die and is angry with Mary for leaving him behind.

In all, the story is probably essential for its introduction of John Watson’s love interest, but I honestly like what the BBC series has done with the story more than the actual Conan Doyle story itself. I do remember The Hound of the Baskervilles being my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes novels. I haven’t read it in years, but based on my memory and the re-reading of the other three Holmes novels, my mind hasn’t changed. I actually think Conan Doyle does better with the short story format, which explains why the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are written in that format.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is nineteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is Silver Blaze.”

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