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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