Book Review: The Sign of Four

sign of fourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle is the second Sherlock Homes novel. It was originally published in a magazine as The Sign of the Four and later published as a novel. Later publications shortened the name to The Sign of Four.

Sherlock and Watson are visited by a Miss Mary Morstan. Her father had disappeared ten years earlier and she began receiving a valuable pearl from an anonymous source every year for the last six years. She’s just received a note saying she is a wronged woman and requesting a meeting. She can bring two friends as long as they are not police. Sherlock and Watson agree to go. Mary shows them an odd paper found among her father’s things that appears to be a map with four crosses and four names, three of them English and one Indian.

When they arrive at their destination they are greeted by one of two twin brothers who were sons of an associate of Mary’s father. I’ll leave what he told them and what they found there for you to discover if you read the book. 🙂

Hearing that Holmes engaged in drug usage caused me to hold his stories at arm’s length at first, but Wikipedia explains that the drugs he uses are not illegal at the time. He uses them when he is extremely bored or when he feels his brain needs the stimulation. This book introduces the habit and Watson’s disapproval, which he finally works up the nerve to express to Holmes. According to Wikipedia, in later stories Watson is eventually able to “wean” Holmes off of them. The drug use doesn’t play a major role in this book, but it’s there, mainly at the beginning.

This book also delves more into Holmes’s pysche and personality, which I found as interesting as the mysteries. We saw in the first book that Holmes had a brilliant intellect and developed his skills for deductive reasoning and crime solving almost to the exclusion of others, even to the point of not knowing that the earth revolved around the sun or caring since it didn’t affect his work. Some years ago I saw an documentary on Einstein which showed him to have a horrible relationship with his wife. I almost wondered then whether becoming a genius in one area required one to be out of balance in other areas. I don’t know – I’ll have to explore that idea further if I read about any more geniuses. 🙂 But it appears to be true in Holmes’ case: if he is not solving a crime or developing a skill which will help in the future, he’s utterly bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself. This book humanizes him a bit and we see him as more than just a brilliant intellect.

Part of my interest in reading Holmes’ stories is spurred by some modern adaptions of them, mainly the BBC television production of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which depicts Holmes as a modern London city-dweller and adapts the stories in the current culture and technology.  I’ve only seen the first three episodes and have been advised that the fourth (or actually the first episode in the second season, concerning Irene Adler) is best avoided. But I’ve enjoyed the three I’ve seen and thought they were quite well done. They don’t follow the original stories exactly but there are enough similarities to make the modern Sherlock as much like the original as possible within a modern framework.

But even though the TV series touched off my reading of the Holmes books, they are interesting enough that I want to continue to read them for themselves. For this book I listened to the audiobook ably narrated by David Timson. The text of the story can be found online here.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)