The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read January 2019
Recommended for fans of period mysteries, period adventure stories
★     ★    1/2 

Sherlock has been enjoying a Hollywood resurgence. That’s not what lead me to pick this up, however. Vaguely headachey, I needed a reading distraction, and the appropriate story in these kinds of situations is a touchy one. I was finishing Winter Tide, but didn’t want to lose my appreciation of it’s cool and misty beauty. Non-fiction was clearly out. I could  attack the last Faith Hunter book, but I had the feeling that irritation would push into pain faster than I could say, ‘Excedrin.’ A mystery then, a weak one that demanded little and whose writing might lull rather than engage. The Connolly I had? Absolutely not. A Christie? Nah; the ones I had seemed too fresh. Wait–next to Christie was Doyle. Ah, perfect.

I mean, ‘perfect’ in the sense of a half-hearted, sleepy-couch read. I thought the tale well told, and interesting in a historic kind of way. I remembered, reading, that Watson drove me a bit batty when I read before, with his assumptions and judging. He doubtfully questions Holmes as to how he knows something, and when Holmes proves his deduction and observation powers by telling Watson about his gold watch, Watson gets all pissy and pouty. So unsympathetic. And I still don’t know why anyone makes a deal at all about Holmes’ drug use. He explains his using here, and it actually makes perfect sense to me. Of course, I happen to know all about consequences, like the cardiac damage and the brain rewiring and the gradual replacement of drugs for emotional connections, but that’s real life and this is a book. Yet many of the reviews I looked at mention this. Are we really scandalized still over a book from 1890?

Well, sort of, because Conan Doyle pulls in a–SPOILER, cripes–faithful South American Pygmy as part of the crime. First, offensive. Second, lame. That’s like the 19th century equivalent of using a schizophrenic serial killer. There’s also loads of what we’d now call racial profiling, only wrapped up in that darling Victorian-era physiognomy, complete with pejorative adjectives like ‘blackest natives’ and whatever. I mean, none of that is surprising, and this is like, 130 years ago, so it’s not like I’m seriously offended–which is clearly a privilege, right?–but at this point, I’m not mad, just extra tired and a little bored, like, ‘seriously?’ So why are we going to Doyle for source material, when he was so clearly cribbing from adventure stories from when he was a kid? Although, this was only his second book, so I should cut him a break. Plus, he was just trying to make some dough to pay off the bills, which is totally fair.

What was ethically interesting to me is that Holmes and Watson seem convinced that a mysterious treasure belongs to the daughter of a British major who was a prison warden and the son of another major,  both of whom served in India. I was immediately stuck while reading that, oh, sure, the majors came by the treasure honestly. It’s clearly evil deeds coming back to bite the majors in the butt. But they act like that’s a thing.

Anyway, it’s interesting watching Holmes retrace the crime, although mostly with the help of Toby, a talented scent hound. It’s also interesting seeing the notes of the legend, including one of his famous costume changes, research on cigarette ash, the Baker Street Irregulars, and a slightly-bumbling-but-appreciative London detective to take the credit.

Overall, I’d say at the moment, a 2.5 shots kind of book. Interesting in a historical way, and probably as a starting point of detective fiction–here are where your tropes begin, authors–but seriously, painfully dated. And not because of the cocaine.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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7 Responses to The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. M. says:

    Always love reading your thoughts and thought process while reading. It’s like I’m reading along with you. 😀 I’m not a fan of Doyle for precisely the reasons you listed, but I do enjoy seeing various contemporary interpretations of Holmes & Watson through the years. My favorite is still the show Elementary on CBS, only because it started out as the least annoying interpretation and grew into a series with many depths and nuances.

    P.S. I’m glad you liked Winter Tide!

    • thebookgator says:

      Thank you! I agree, I do like ‘Elementary,’ although the sound variations in that one, coupled with Sherlock’s diction, make it a bit challenging to follow at times. I’ve only watched it intermittently–do they ever deal with romance between the two? The Benedict C. one gets the feel of the bromance nicely.

      • M. says:

        Yeah, the bromance was nice in that one, but the BBC took forever to release a new season, so I kinda lost interest. As for Elementary–I think you’ll like this–there’s no romance! Sherlock and Joan become best friends and there’s a really nice found-family atmosphere in the later seasons. But no romance.

        Johnny Lee Miller’s voice takes some getting used to– I’m with you there. I used to and still do watch this show with closed captioning on.

      • thebookgator says:

        Good call on dropping the BBC one, I think–they went a strange and controversial direction with Mary that distracts quite solidly. Wow, wtg Elementary for just ignoring the male-female thing! Closed captioning is just the solution! I’ve binged-watched it when there seems to be a marathon on.

      • M. says:

        That’s disappointing to hear about Mary in the BBC series. I was thinking about picking up where I left off, but now I think I’ll just go with another season of Veep instead.

        Elementary hit its stride from season 4 onward, and Sherlock & Joan become equal partners in work and life (but no romance). Their relationships with the captain and Detective Bell got more development as well, and now they’re like an eccentric, fast-talking, crime-solving family. (Sorry, I can’t stop squeeing about this show)

      • thebookgator says:

        We’ll have to give it a go at tome time, then. I’ve liked Lucy Liu ever since Ally McBeal.

      • thebookgator says:

        Yeah, don’t. I looked at plot summaries re: Mary. It goes REALLY off-script.

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