Dan Sandman

12: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 21/03/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan DoyleThanks for finding this book review, this week I have been reading about the world’s very first consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, discovering why The Sign of Four is a brilliant book, and thinking about how it might be read by a modern reader.

Visit Baker Street on a sunny day and you are bound to see hundreds of tourists queuing up for the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Perhaps the eager visitors are looking for the real history behind the books, or maybe they are seeking to relive the cases in the actual street where the detective lived. But sadly, despite having his own museum, Sherlock Holmes and and his stories are fictitious; not written by John H. Watson, M.D., but the work of fiction writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. More’s the pity, the world needs more intelligent free-thinkers like Mr. Holmes.

The Sign of Four was first published in 1890 and is the second Sherlock Holmes mystery. It is narrated by Dr. Watson, divided into twelve chapters, and as easy to read now as it was over a hundred years ago. As my mother once said, “that’s because Arthur Conan Doyle could really write well”. And it was my mother who first introduced me to the brilliant detective when I was a nipper. An important part of my growing up was listening to these stories being read out loud.

Because the stories are exciting, because the language is wonderfully descriptive, and because the result is a feast for the imaginative senses: the Sherlock Holmes mysteries remain a steadfast source of pleasure to this day. Watch them on television, discover the old films produced during the war, or best of all, pick up a book from your local bookshop or library. Like the James Bond books, the Holmes books are reliable British classics which have been released and reproduced in a number of different forms. But, as nearly always is the case, the books remain the best way to enjoy the stories.

Now, to briefly talk about how today’s more liberal British readers might perceive the Holmes books. After all, there is a tendency towards racial stereotypes being used as criminal evidence. For example, in chapter 8, Holmes pulls down a bulky gazetteer (geographical dictionary) from the shelf to suggest that the aborigines of the Andaman Islands are all savage murderers: –

[…] They are a fierce, morose, and intractable people, though capable of forming most devoted friendships when their confidence has been gained.

Perhaps such unfounded speculation, presented as dictionary proved truth, should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, as with the Bond novels – where the central character hates woman – Holmes is pure escapism at its very finest. The average Brit would have been excited by tales of distant lands and thrilled by adventures of buried treasure in foreign countries. Partly because most people would not have traveled further than the seaside. And to some extent, this is still true today, hence the recent popularity of the excellent – much less racist – BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

Another thing that has often been diluted from Holmes adaptations, but is clearly present in the books, is Holmes’ drug habit. I shall conclude abruptly with this brilliant ending to a most entertaining reading experience. Watson has just asked his detective friend what remains now that the mystery has been solved: –

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle’. And he stretched his long white hand up for it.


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