- The Good: Watson falls in love!
- The Bad: Some very outdated Victorian ideas
- The Literary: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
December 1878, Mary Morstan waits at the Langlam Hotel in London to reunite with her father who has just returned from India, but he never shows. She calls on his old friend, Major John Sholto, but he claims he hasn’t seen him. Now, ten years later in 1888, Mary receives her sixth anonymous package. Like the previous five annual packages, it contains a single perfect pearl. But this year, an accompanying note indicates Mary has somehow been wronged. Sherlock Holmes takes the case, his only lead a map found in Mary’s father’s desk inscribed with the names of Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar.
Published in 1890, the second of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, The Sign of the Four is a complex piece of detective fiction that involves stolen treasure, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, an intimate look at Holmes’ drug habit, and the future wife of Dr. Watson. Sherlock uncovers multiple untimely deaths, heart attacks, blows to the head, poison darts, and notes reading “The Sign of the Four”. There’s also a very good boy named Toby, a steam boat, a man with a wooden leg, double-crosses, and Holmes in disguise. The stolen treasure has a rich past dating back to India in 1857.
I love the character development in this second novel, particularly of our duo. Sherlock is still his old charming self-involved self, but in addition to his skills of deduction, he proves to be a master of disguise as well as confirmed hard drug abuser. The Sherlock Holmes stories, although being published at this time, were not yet famous or well-loved, and already Doyle chose to give this arrogant misanthrope yet another negative trait. Mary is introduced, and, spoiler, Watson falls in love with her.
Even with relatively few clues, Sherlock unravels the mystery in no time. But the complex plot feels distant, probably because the denouement takes place far away in both time and space. The criminal’s confession of his back story is interesting, with slavery, imperialism, and revolution, but you have to be ready for an abrupt change. Although if you read it’s predecessor, A Study in Scarlet, you’ll be familiar with the story-within-a-story trope that seems to be common.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of the non-white characters is poor, particularly the black cannibal, and it doesn’t help that the word savage is thrown around so casually. The social stratification and the obsession with the East strongly root the story in Victorian times. However, as Doyle writes about stolen treasure in India that brings bad fortune to everyone it touches, I wonder if he might have been commenting on the costs of imperialism. I’d like to think so, but then again, he wanted to give the treasure to Mary instead of returning it to from where it was originally stolen.
Highly recommended for all fans of mystery! Come see the novel that inspired countless interpretations, just keep in mind the century in which it was written.