A beautiful young woman seeks the help of Holmes and Watson when the mysterious benefactor who has been sending her a pearl each year since her father disappeared wants to meet her. Involved are a priceless hoard of Indian treasure and a murderer whose trademark is "the sign of four."
This is a fun, fast read--barely novel length, only 12 chapters and barely over 40 thousand words and along with its mystery and adventure even provides a soupçon of romance. I don't think this is as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most famous Sherlock Holmes story and novel, but it's holds up well compared to the first, A Study in Scarlet and there's so much here that makes Holmes such an immortal character. There are his brilliant deductions such as his tour de force with Watson's watch, there's his sense of humor that ameliorates his sometimes cold ratiocination, his flare for the dramatic seen in his revelation of his disguises, and even his flaws like his addiction (or close to it) for cocaine, which is highlighted here at the beginning and end of the novel.
So much here made me smile. The Holmesian aphorism: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The Baker Street Irregulars. Toby the master tracker, a mongrel that's a mix of spaniel, collie and greyhound. The exotic mix of things from the height of the British Raj, which includes nothing less than hidden treasure to be found.
I don't know that I'd recommend this as an introduction to Sherlock Holmes. I'd point someone first perhaps to the collection of short stories The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or the best Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, or even the first novel, A Study in Scarlet. But certainly if you've already discovered you love Sherlock Holmes, you shouldn't be disappointed in The Sign of Four.
The story is wonderfully paced with plenty of excitement, from chasing down the criminals through the use of a dog to another appearance by the Baker Street irregulars, and a thrilling boat chase for the climax of the story. More than a century after it was first written, the novel shows little sign of its age. The Sign of Four is well-paced, exciting, and even action packed story. It represents Doyle at his finest in many ways.
The mystery is somewhat bizarre with its use of exotic weapons and strange footprints, but not too outre as seemed to be the case in some of the later Holmes stories such as "The Creeping Man." As is often the case it involves a young woman, with the added attraction of a treasure making the case even more interesting.
I think that while in Study in Scarlet, we learned about Holmes, in this book we begin to see Holmes' personality: the genius who is so driven to avoid hum drum existence, who seeks problems and trouble to find some problem to keep his attention.
The novel is also noteworthy for its focus on Holmes' use of Cocaine in the beginning and end. Dr. Watson (and by extension Dr. Doyle) were concerned about the use of Cocaine in the late 19th Century and its negative effects. However, Doyle wasn't heavy handed in his approach, and so Watson's concern sounds more like a modern doctor's concern with any popular addiction. And Holmes is blaise about it, leading to some interactions and statement that may seem surreal or humorous to the modern reader.
The Take-Away: My love of the classics is two-fold: I love stories that well told even by modern standards; I love seeing how the world has changed. For instance, Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user. When he wasn't solving mysteries, he was so bored with life, that a 7% solution was one of the two things that made life tolerable -- the other being morphine.
I also love seeing how writing has changed. "Editing" the title helps me to think through what would need to be done to make it sell in today's market. Working out that muscle also helps my own writing.
Sherlock isn't nearly as interesting as Watson. Sherlock is cool and undistribed, always right whereas Watson is emotional and often overlooks what Sherlock considers a clue. Indulge me a bit here: Sherlock is always right, because the author makes sure he is. If Sherlock missed a clue, here and there, like Watson often does, would the books be considered as great? Is it because Sherlock is a larger than life character that they've carried through the years?
Recommendation: If you like classics, Sherlock is a great detective.
Sherlock Holmes gave a most dismal groan. “I feared as much,” said he. “I cannot really congratulate you.”
I was a little hurt. “Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?” I asked.
“Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met….But love is an emotional thing and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.
"I trust,” said I, laughing, “that my judgment may survive the ordeal.”
Sorry for a lengthy quote but I couldn’t resist. I will remember this second novel in the Sherlock Holmes series for the blooming romance between our dear friend Dr. Watson and the woman in peril, Miss Mary Morstan. When you get romance in Sherlock Holmes you have to cherish it. And Holmes’ cold reaction towards it. There’s a guy who stays true to character.
Of other novelties in the novel one can mention the opening scene where Holmes with much indifference is sniffing cocaine out of boredom. Watson is shocked and warns Holmes of his dangerous cocain habit.
So we come to the mystery itself. Well, all I have to say: This is a short, fast-paced story that takes place all over London - about Miss Morstan and her missing father, a hidden treasure, treachery, murder and greed among the ingredients. Here’s the books concluding remark:
Watson to Holmes: You have done all the work in this business. I geet a wife out of it, Jones (the police investigator) gets the credit, pray what remains for you?
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
"The Sign of the Four," which is the second Sherlock Holmes mystery, has Holmes and Watson investigating a case that involves a beautiful young woman, Miss Morstan. For years, she has been receiving pearls in the mail from a mysterious source. She is given the chance to uncover the benefactor's identity, but within the offer is a puzzling threat to someone who wronged her. Baffled at who this unknown individual could possibly mean, she calls upon Sherlock Holmes for help. But just as they begin to investigate, a man is murdered, and someone whom Holmes is sure is innocent gets the blame. And so the mystery unfolds as the two detectives try to recover Miss Morstan's fortune, find her mysterious pearl-sender, and clear the name of a falsely accused man.
Perhaps it was because since reading Doyle as a child I have been introduced to Agatha Christie and other mysteries. Or perhaps it was just because I was expecting something entirely different. But for whatever the reason, I didn't love this book like I thought I would. It was average - and I will keep it, but I don't feel any motivation to take out any more Sherlock books now.
While reading, Sherlock Holmes himself struck me as annoying, and I had to struggle to keep looking for anything likable about him. Watson on the other hand (who I used to think was very annoying as a child), was charming and seemed far more realistic of a person than Holmes.
Sherlock is very precise and detail-obsessed, and having built a revered name for himself, he also comes across as quite an arrogant, self important person. He is always convinced that he is right, and seems constantly impressed with himself. The scene where he puts on a disguise that fools even Watson, then reveals himself triumphantly, reminded me of a child. He seemed delighted to have pulled off the disguise so well, and told everyone so. I half expected him to say "Ta da!" But of course, if you examine this thinking, you'll just realize that Holmes admittedly deserves to be a bit inflated. He is a brilliant detective, and I suppose that his disguise was, grudgingly, pretty good if it even fooled his longtime companion. But this just annoyed me even further: Holmes is irritating at times, but he deserves every bit of the praise he gets (and he knows it).
The author seemed just as enamored with his character as the rest of the city is. Holmes never makes a mistake, or if he does, it is quickly retracted and spun into being beneficial. Holmes always has impressive plans and second-plans and friends and connections and resources at his fingertips. With this set-up, I can't see how Holmes could possibly have failed to become a successful detective.
Watson does not exactly play such an important part in solving the mystery, but as a reader, I was happy to overlook this. I was relieved to recall that it is Watson who narrates the stories, not Holmes.
Watson is more grounded than Holmes, more practical. Holmes often imagines impossible, exciting solutions to mysteries, while Watson is more likely to think of what is most logical. Of course, since these are, after all, impossible, exciting mystery stories, Holmes' guesses are most often right, but in the real world, it would probably have been Watson solving all the cases.
Watson also seems far more, well, human than Holmes. I was very happy for him in finding a love interest with Miss Morstan. He deserves it.
Besides the revolution of finding that I actually dislike Sherlock Holmes (that still doesn't sound right), I also found this book to be (surprise, again) a bit dull at times. It simply never held my attention.
I am very glad that I re-read this book, even if it was a bit jarring. Some books you read as a child seem completely and totally different when you re-read them as an adult.
What I found more exciting about The Sign of the Four than its plot, though, was the depiction of its main character, Sherlock Holmes. Compared to the first novel, there is a change in the depiction of Holmes right in the beginning of The Sign of the Four when the reader learns about Holmes using cocaine. While the first novel depicts Holmes as a great detective with a vast knowledge in various fields of study, and someone who perfected the art of deduction, the second novel makes him seem more human. He is less perfect than in the first novel and this makes him a rounder character.
While I liked the character development in this novel, the plot was not really too exciting and a little too complex at times. On the whole, the second Sherlock Holmes novel is still a fairly good read. 3 stars.
I love that this novel gives us the full range of Sherlock’s emotions. He is obviously troubled, both when he is bored and when he is frustrated by a case. At other times he is completely joyous and playful as his mind ticks at a rapid pace, miles ahead of everyone else as he connects the dots.
The relationship between Watson and Sherlock is at its best here. It’s still in its infancy in A Study in Scarlet and it’s almost completely missing in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This book captures the core of their friendship. They balance each other, Sherlock needs someone to think of the emotional side of things and Watson loves being involved in the thrill of a new case, though he wouldn’t pursue this line of work on his own.
We also have Sherlock’s fussy landlady, Mrs. Hudson, who worries about her tenant and the client, Miss Mary Morstan, who catches Watson’s eye. Then there’s the Baker Street Irregulars, a ragtag group of boys who occasionally help Sherlock with his cases. The novel also has a helpful dog named Toby and some of Sherlock’s most infamous lines. You can’t go wrong with this one.
BOTTOM LINE: This is definitely my favorite Sherlock Holmes novel so far. I also think it would be a great starting point for anyone who is new to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work.
"My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world."
"The chief proof of man's real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness."
“No, I am not tired. I have a curious constitution. I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely."
“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.”
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Many times through the story, Holmes makes it a point to say that he has a number of theories but doesn’t want to expound on any of them until he has the appropriate facts. Contrary to Holmes’ abundance of theories, the reader walks alongside Watson in confusion as more and more diverse elements pile up without having any clear indication as to their relationship to one another or to the central case. What starts off as the hope of solving a decade old disappearance turns into a case of murder and grand larceny as the crew stumbles upon a corpse and a missing treasure.
As the case grows more intricate Holmes annoyingly goes “off stage” a few times to work on some of his own theories. I found these moments annoying because Watson remains in Baker Street waiting for Holmes and as a result we only get a few sentences of explanation as to these elements of Holmes’ adventures or investigations. Some of these moments involve moments of disguise and subterfuge. It’s entirely possible, based on some of the other elements in this book and the previous novel, Study in Scarlet, that these scenes were deemed to be too dull for inclusion and if that is the case then I applaud Conan Doyle for leaving them out. Still, part of me wanted to see more of Holmes in action rather than Holmes in narrative.
As the mystery wraps up and we reach the conclusion, we once again receive a lengthy narrative retelling a story that happened decades prior. I found this story a bit more interesting to read than the story told at the end of Study in Scarlet, but I was still a little bored by the lengthy narrative. Much of the action and intrigue of the story was boiled down to its most basic elements or left out entirely as the narrator simply presented the base facts from memory.
The overall concept of this particular mystery was fairly intriguing and I liked the way that it played out. I found myself liking this novel slightly better than the first Holmes story but still felt a little underwhelmed as to the overall style and structure. The nature of his intelligent deductions is fun and while his character is abrasive, I enjoy getting to know more about Holmes. A solid sequel.
3 out of 5 stars
We get a lot of brilliant deduction, followed by various methods employed by Holmes to fill in the gaps in his knowledge - the Baker Street irregulars (street urchins he employs from time to time), disguise, a chase, etc. Ultimately, once the villain is discovered and safely in custody, it's time for him to spill the entire back story so we can see how right Holmes was.
Recommended for: everyone (come on, it's Sherlock Holmes!).
Quote: "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth?"
Holmes uses cocaine as a substitute of craved mental stimulant which detective's work provides to him: "My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere." When confronted by Watson he is not irritated, "On the contrary, he put his finger-tips together and leaned his elbows on the arms of this chair, like one who has a relish for conversation."
And that morning, to Watson's astonishment, Holmes demonstrates that "For example, observation shows me that you have been to Wigmore Street Post-Office, but deduction lets me know that when there you dispatched a telegram."
The plot arch is uncovered in a straight forward story which Dr. Watson recounts in first person: A young lady, Mary Mortan, seeks the assistance of able men to accompany her to a meeting with a mysterious someone who promises to reveal to her how her father died and a commitment to relinquish her fair share of a supposed treasure she inherited. Then, the entire action is compressed into the following 3 days.
Reading Conan Doyle is also a bit of an archeological window into the language of the 19th century. For me, the smattering of quaint phraseology only adds an element of authenticity to the book.
The book excels in unfolding the detective story (the "what"). Tightly paced and compact. One mildly unsatisfactory element is the choice of a deus-ex-machina plot device in explaining the "why". An entire chapter of the book is filled by a guy who sits in a chair and tells a story that puts put the motives behind the crime that was investigated by Holmes and Watson. One defense to this decision could be that this way Conan Doyle preserves the consistency of the book of being entirely told from the point of view of Dr. Watson and written in the first person.