Dienstag, 26. Juni 2012

The Sign of (the?) Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Say the name Sherlock Holmes and anyone who hasn't read the books or watched one of the recent adaptations which have somewhat corrected this image will automatically think of an old-fashioned, serious, brilliant and dignified pipe-smoking gentleman.

This general idea could not be more wrong, and in the second Sherlock Holmes novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wastes no time before showing us how far from a respectable, clever and boring detective his hero is:

The Sign of Four opens with a minute description of Sherlock shooting up cocaine, a habit he has apparently been engaging in for many months. But mind you, as the only consulting detective in the world he is not simply a common drug addict, but takes them when there is no demanding case at hand because he cannot stand "the dull routine of our existence".

I have to admit that I was a bit confused as to the time which had elapsed since the ending of the first novel, because Watson talks about the years he has already lived in Baker Street. Additionally Sherlock and he are on much more intimate terms, so it seems that there was quite a leap in time, but on the other hand they never even allude to another case except for the one featured in A Study in Scarlet.
That being said, except for this little muddle I liked the sequel even more than the first book.
Unlike A Study in Scarlet the focus in this is much more on emotion, and accordingly we see Sherlock wander from the blackest depths of depression, as Watson worriedly puts it, to desperate, restless ecstasy during the case. He is only happy when there is some obscure riddle to solve, and contrary to the first novel I faintly noticed an air of tragedy about him this time. Especially the last lines of the novel left me rather sad. Watson states that everyone got some personal profit out of the case and asks what remains for the only true detective since all the public recognition went to Scotland Yard. The answer is: "For me, there still remains the cocaine-bottle", whereupon Sherlock immediately starts injecting it again.

However, all this emotion must have a good side too, and that is incarnated in John Watson. While he and Sherlock already were good companions in the earlier novel, they are now absolutely heart-warming together: they tease and make fun of eachother and while there are no open signs of affection, there is this short paragraph which might well be my favourite scene in the whole book:

"Look here, Watson; you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa and see if I can put you to sleep.”
He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air–his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me."

Which neatly brings us to the next topic, for Sherlock's client, Miss Mary Morstan is a woman Watson takes particular interest in. His romance with her is very sweet and very kitschy, and I definitely cannot blame Holmes for making fun of them. It is surely good that Watson has found a sensible, loveable woman; sooner or later he would probably go insane with Sherlock as his only companion, but since marrying her means that he will have to move out of Baker Street and leave Sherlock all to himself I'm looking rather melancholy upon the whole affair.

So, I think I've covered everything I wanted to say now, haven't I? Oh no, as usually I forgot the case itself!
The only thing I'm going to tell you about it is that it is very complicated and intricate (which made it a lot of fun) and that there is a long, splendid background story set in India. Also, I have given up faith in Scotland Yard. Obviously London police is a bunch of incompetent wannabes. If there is a seemingly insoluble crime, Sherlock Holmes is clearly the only man to call!


  1. I really enjoyed this one much better then A Study in Scarlet also. I thought the pacing was better and the adventure much more exciting! (I love a good adventure story. :) )

    I'm just starting on the short stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes--are you going to be reading those this summer as well? I've heard various people say they prefer the short stories to the novels, so I'm curious what I'll think.

    1. It's true, the case in this is much better. So exciting! And I loved to see Sherlock frustrated for once :)

      Ah, this is tempting, very very tempting! In fact I wanted to read all of the novels before I start with the short stories, but I'm curious and The Adventures are resting on my shelves, so I am not sure whether I'll manage to stick to my resolution. We'll see how strong I am.

    2. My plan is to read the novels and stories in order of publication, in which case Adventures comes after The Sign of Four. Although I'm not sure it really matters!

    3. Oh, in this case I'm totally with you! I wanted to read in the order of publication too, but I was somehow misguided and thought that all of the novels were written before the stories.Thanks for setting that right! Now I may give in to temptation without a guilty conscience :)

    4. I'm glad I can help! Assuming I copied the years correctly, this is the order:
      A Study in Scarlet (1887)
      The Sign of Four (1890)
      The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
      The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894)
      The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
      The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905)
      The Valley of Fear (1915)
      His Last Bow (1917)
      The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

    5. Thanks, this is very helpful, especially since I tend to mix up dates and numbers in general :)
      The Adventures it is then!

  2. The eccentric being of SH is perhaps the thing that makes him so unforgettable. I mean, there are detectives out there, but he is still different.

    I think the disappointment shown in Holmes' reaction to Watson's marriage is so cute. "I feared as much, I really cannot
    congratulate you." That, plus the remark he made when he first met Watson in Scandal in Bohemia.

    1. Oh, you're right! It's so sad that Watson moves out of Baker Street. He and Holmes are so cute together :)

  3. Great post, you have made me want to re-read The Sign of Four, which I first read as a teenager, Holmes was my first literary crush.
    Really enjoying reading your blog by the way.

    1. I'm loving this, Holmes certainly is a worthy first crush!
      Thank you, I love comments from my readers in general, but especially when they've got something so nice to say :)

  4. I'm reading this one right now. :) Finished The Study in Scarlet the other week.

    Am also a fan of the Sherlock series, looking forward to their next season.

    1. Let me know how you like it! I found that once I started reading Sherlock Holmes I wanted to read all of his adventures in a row.

      Yes, another Sherlock fan! :)
      It's absolutely cruel how long the producers keep us waiting, especially considering the Reichenbach-cliffhanger. I need my daily dose of brilliant eccentricity!

  5. Like in Adventures of SH, I think Watson wrote the cases (unfortunately) not in chronology, so it sometimes confusing..