The sign of four

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Paper Book, 1993

Status

Available

Publication

Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1993.

Description

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."

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
For me this second Sherlock Holmes novel is what defines a classic. By no means is Doyle the master stylist of a Thomas Hardy or Oscar Wilde, and I'm not going to claim there are profound insights into the human condition, but this novel wears its age very lightly indeed. There are books written decades later that feel far more dated, and the few times anything in it feel the slightest bit old fashioned, it lends it more the piquant flavor of the Victorian Age than anything that feels like a flaw.

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.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Having already read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I turned to another one of the published Holmes novels, The Sign of Four, in part because it is available in a Penguin Classics edition. Felicitously, I found it to be one of the best detective novels of its time.
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.
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LibraryThing member slpenney07
Summary: A young lady has been sent pearls. Sherlock and Watson investigate their origin, along with a cryptic letter that promises to explain all.

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.
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LibraryThing member nwdavies
Been a while since I read even a short novel or novella in one day, but I did it with The Sign Of Four. Thoroughly enjoyed it and nice to read the original after seeing so many adaptations on tv. Great stuff.
LibraryThing member ctpress
Watson: I fear that it may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods. Miss Morstan has done me the honor to accept me as a husband in prospective.

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.
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LibraryThing member joririchardson
I read the Sherlock Holmes series as a child, so I was very startled to re-open this book after ten years to the scene of the beloved detective injecting cocaine into his arm. Obviously, this went right over my head when I was younger.

"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.
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LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
The Sign of the Four is the second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and was published in 1890. It is actually not that easy to sum up the plot of this novel in a few words as it is very complex. The novel is about a stolen treasure, kept secret by a group of four convicts, and about the disappearance of Captain Arthur Morstan, father of Mary Morstan, Sherlock Holmes' new client. Soon, the detective finds a connection between the treasure and Captain Morstan's disappearance. Thaddeus Sholto, the son of a former comrade of Arthur Morstan, reveals that Morstan died of a heart attack and that Sholto had come into possession of information about the stolen treasure. During the investigation, Dr. Watson falls in love with Mary Morstan, who is to become his wife.

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.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Watson and Sherlock are back in this delicious mystery, one of only four full Sherlock novels. This one has it all and is my personal favorite. It opens with Sherlock shooting cocaine as a concerned Watson questions the addiction. Things just get better from there. We have a mysterious treasure from India passed down from father to son, murder, great disguises from Sherlock and even a bit of romance for Watson.

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.”
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LibraryThing member CarsonKicklighter
Dr. Watson, maybe there are easier ways to pick up women than chasing pygmies and peg-legged people down the Thames.
LibraryThing member ruthich
Not quite the classic of Study in Scarlet or Valley of Fear, an adventure that roams to an Indian hard labour camp, where some of the inmates get involved with jewels and crooked British Officers.
LibraryThing member meyben
Sherlock Holms and Dr. Watson are on the case. Miss Mary Morston recieves a pearlonce a year from someone she does not know. A death happens in conjubction with this, and a mystery unfolds.
LibraryThing member tronella
This was very weird compared to the previous Holmes book I read. Less Mormon-hating, more racism. Also, what with reading The Mad Ship and watching Muppet Treasure Island recently, I feel like everything I see is about how one-legged men are evil. :s
LibraryThing member ragwaine
Drug use pretty daring, funny, original.
LibraryThing member marsap
The story is set in 1887. The Sign of Four has a complex plot involving service in East India Company, India, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts and two corrupt prison guards. The "mystery" was interesting, but what I really enjoyed about this book is watching Holmes use his powers of deduction--always a pleasure! Highly recommended-4 1/2 out of 5 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member david7466
This book confused me with all of the characters running around. The conclusions made by Holmes at times seemed to be too much of a reach, but the boat chase was thrilling. Overall a good read.
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Never read this one before, same as with study in scarlet... i had only read the short stories when i was younger. This had the same kind of flashback sectioin, only it was a story told by a character as opposed to a full on flashback with a different narrator...
LibraryThing member jasonlf
Excellent for what it is, of course. This is the second Holmes novella, fits the formula perfectly, and is enjoyable from beginning to end. It features a locked room mystery (sort of), the usual mysteries that had their origin overseas, and even a little romantic interest for Watson. It is not quite as confounding and mysterious, nor is the solution quite as satisfying, as many of the later Holmes stories. But still excellent.… (more)
LibraryThing member 391
The Sign of Four brings in a lot of character development and description - we get to see Watson and Holmes' famous friendship (such as when they are led to a complete dead-end by a dog who has gotten on the wrong track) as well as find out more of Watson's personal history. I also quite like the narrative voice, as Watson can be quite the charmer at times, though occasionally melodramatic, an opinion with which I'm sure Sherlock would agree. The long exposition at the end, though it didn't drag nearly as much as Jefferson Hope's, was still a bit tedious compared to the adventures leading up to it.… (more)
LibraryThing member KLmesoftly
I enjoyed this; though I probably laughed more - at the sexism, racism, and general ethnocentrism ingrained in the text - than Sir Arthur intended, it's an engaging, well-written little caper with some great chase scenes and iconic bits of dialogue.
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
What is an English story without a tie-in to India? I enjoyed watching Holmes unravel the mystery and seeing Watson fall in love with his future wife. Fun reading.
LibraryThing member michaeldwebb
This is the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and it hasn't aged as well as other Sherlock books because of it's racial stereotyping. If you can accept that as a product of the time then the story is OK, again, not as clever as some of the shorter stories or more well known novels.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Interesting. This is one of Manguel’s books from A Reading Diary, and for me the first adult reading of unabridged Sherlock Holmes. I finished it with more appreciation for Conan Doyle as a writer, and a vague regret that the adult Sherlock Holmes turns out to be a cocaine addict.
LibraryThing member theokester
Similar to the first full length Holmes novel, The Sign of Four lets us get to know more about Sherlock Holmes through the unraveling of an intricate case. It gives a greater glimpse into Holmes’ drug habit and his pompous and abrasive personality. This time, Holmes and Watson are presented with a mystery at least ten years in the making when a young woman approaches Holmes with a story of her father who vanished ten years ago and her subsequent receipt of precious jewels and now an invitation to meet someone who promises to shed light on the mystery.

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
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LibraryThing member ursula
What is there to say about Sherlock Holmes and Watson that everyone else hasn't already said? That won't stop me, though. I am reading them in order, so this is my second encounter with Holmes and Watson. Here you begin to see what would become the basis for endless film and tv representations of their characters. Holmes is treating his boredom with cocaine; Watson is a bit of a nervous aunt as he inquires as to the wisdom of the treatment. But before we have to delve too deeply into Holmes' psyche, a case comes calling in the person of Mary Morstan. The case involves a death, and a hidden treasure from India.

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?"
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LibraryThing member port22
It seems that Holmes is an early discoverer ("I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it...") of a new didactic method of working out crimes: "Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner." Three qualities are necessary to make the ideal detective -- power of observation, deduction, and technical subjects; it is all a work of precision: "No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty."

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.
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