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Book review: <i>The Sign Of Four</i> by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The second of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novellas, The Sign Of Four (originally published in 1890), is less with the long-winded-Sherlock-Holmes-single-minded-genius and more with the getting-to-know-the-many-facets-of-Sherlock-Holmes, beginning with his penchant for injecting cocaine to relieve boredom and smattered with his airy ability to quote philosophers in a multitude of languages (happily ignoring the fact that in the previous story, Holmes had no interest in philosophy). The new Sherlock Holmes is certainly an improvement, though.

The story

Sherlock Holmes is bored and case-less, and relieving his boredom by alternating morphine and cocaine... as you do. Enter the charming Miss Mary Morstan, with whom Watson is instantly smitten. She requests the assistance of Holmes and Watson to solve the mysterious disappearance of her father, and the subsequent invitation to “have justice” by an anonymous letter writer. Holmes and Watson happily accompany her to see the anonymous letter writer; only to become deeply embroiled in a mystery concerning treasure, murders, India, escaped convicts, and small savages with poisoned blowpipes. Meanwhile, Watson is worried that the fortune Miss Morstan is entitled to will prevent him from declaring his intentions...

The style

Well, it was the late nineteenth century, so the style is fairly late-ninteenth-century-England (no, that’s not a cop-out!); formal, descriptive, narrated by the ever faithful Watson to keep the element of suspense going. It is an improvement on A Study In Scarlet. Sherlock Holmes has a bit more personality. He’s less of a mystery-solving-machine and is stretched to solve the mystery. Furthermore, slightly more clues are revealed to the readers—not that the reader could actually solve the mystery without assistance, because it involves intimate knowledge of savage tribes around India, but you can still have a stab with the provided clues. Oh, and Watson’s shoulder injury from the war? ...Is now miraculously a leg injury! Well, at least it then remains consistent I think. Anyway, I love this kind of story, with it’s dated language and it’s archaic English and it’s legendary characters. One does have to read it with its age in mind, considering the references to India as rightfully colonised, the Indians as savages, and some fairly un-PC musings about Tonga, the “animal-like” and “bestial savage”. But there were a couple of Sikhs in there who were particularly “civilised” and really, what more could you ask for? And once again, Doyle ensures that the villain had a reasonable explanation for his heinous deeds and he turns out to be quite a reasonable fellow, in keeping with Doyle’s emphasis of justice. This is one of the fuller, more detailed Sherlock Holmes novels, and it’s good fun.

Who is this book for?

Those lovers of the classic detective fiction, to see where it all began...

If you like this book, you would also like...

A Study In Scarlet, which is the first Sherlock Holmes (warning, it isn’t as good). Some of his others as well... there are lots of them and you can get them for cheap!

In short

Title: The Sign Of Four
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140439072
Year published: 2001
Pages: 160
Genre(s): Classic Literature, Detective fiction
Review Type: