Novel: The Sign of the Four [Sherlock Holmes #2]

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890
Genre: Crime, Mystery
Format: Ebook, 120 pages

It is about time I read the next Sherlock Holmes book. Somehow getting to know all of Holmes and Poirot by Agatha Christie novels became my goal, even though I’ve seen numerous film adaptation of both and know the general story behind the great sleuths by heart. I figured reading it, however, would be a whole new enriching experience. The last book, The Study in Scarlet, introduced us to Dr. Watson, who upon returning from Afghanistan is looking for a flatmate to split expensive rent in London. He comes across a strange individual, Sherlock Holmes, who turns out to be a consulting detective (a profession entirely invented by him). Holmes is both ingenious, identifying a brand of cigars by the ashes they leave, and incredibly crude, being completely unaware of the structure of solar system. He doesn’t seem to interest himself in anything that does not contribute to his profession, which both shocks and intrigues Watson. And so there adventures begins.

In The Sign of Four, the two are approached by a young lady seeking her long lost father. She explains to them that every year she has been receiving an anonymous gift of a precious pearl, but this year it had come to her with a strange note insisting on a meeting and promising the revelation of truth. The girl asks both Holmes and Watson for assistance to accompany her to the mysterious rendezvous. The case turned out to be a wild chase after a treasure that has traveled from India to England, with Sherlock almost failing and triumphantly succeeding at the last moment.

This book introduces Sherlock as an occasional drug-user, who resorts to cocaine and morphine to excite and stimulate his bored mind at idling times. I like how Conan Doyle adds bits of flaws into his character to make him more human. Watson expresses strong opposition to his friend’s dangerous habit, and is even concerned about the harmful effects the drugs can produce on Holmes’s brilliant brain, but Sherlock seems to be unmoved. I wonder how the author is going to deal with his character’s habit later on in the series. Is he going to pursue a safer path and assume Holmes is immune to human flaws, creating no consequences to drug use, or leaving his personality unaltered? Or is Conan Doyle going to become more gutsy, psychological writer and show us some inner struggles and deterioration in his character?

This part of the adventures also marks the beginning of Dr. Watson’s relationship with his future wife Mary. Yet again I must turn a bit cynical when I read Watson’s expressions of love toward the woman. I talked about it in my The Land That Time Forgot post, when I criticized the typical 19-th century approach to literary love. No matter what, whenever the hero sets his eyes upon the leading lady and decides to pursue her, she is conveniently available and harboring the same kind of feeling towards him. It is as if the woman has no other choice but to respond positively to the man’s intentions. I understand that it was essential for many novels of the time to have a successful romantic storyline, and perhaps love from the first sight does exist, but I have a hard time believing in it unless it is tried and found true by the characters. But this is how Watson experiences love:

“Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.”

Finally, I enjoyed the history of the treasure very much (but those who know about my endless affair with treasure-hunting literature might expect nothing less). I felt so bad for the Rajah’s servant, that poor guy! But alas, he fell the victim of being just a plot device. Again, the villain and the treasure thief is somehow justified in his dirty dealings after all is revealed. I find it an interesting twist to the traditional view of villains in mystery fiction. Considering that Conan Doyle chose the same tactic with A Study in Scarlet, this makes me wonder about future Sherlock Holmes stories. Are we going to see more of these justified vigilantes and noble murderers in further writings?

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