Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantlepiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocca-case.
The Sign of the Four was my latest lucky spin for the Classics Club and my second Sherlock Holmes story.
There’s not a lot to be said about another Sherlock Holmes story that hasn’t already been said a hundred times already. They are fun in a traditional, old-fashioned way. However, much of what happens only makes sense when you factor in the inherent racism, superiority and entitlement the English felt toward Indians and other ‘exotics’ during this time. This is one area where the Sherlock Holmes stories have not fared well at all with the passing of time. Many of the attitudes and comments are now completely offensive and would deter many readers from continuing. Recent movie and TV versions have wisely modernised these stories.
For the modern reader Class, Empire and Imperialism are now the dominant themes in The Sign of the Four. The backstory includes scenes from the Indian Sepoy Revolt of 1857. All the expected tropes and racial stereotypes are used by Conan Doyle, making for a number of uncomfortable reading moments. Perhaps the only good thing about older stories like this, is that they show the western world has in fact come a long way from those days, even if we have a long way to go and a lot of work still to do.
The Victorian reader would have been caught up the melodramatic stolen treasure storyline. Coupled with a maiden in distress, unexplained, seemingly impossible deaths, along with mysterious messages and gifts, Conan Doyle provided plenty of page-turning adventure for his readers. Thankfully for Watson, this particularly mystery also introduced an element of romance into his life.
‘You are a wronged woman and shall have justice. Do not bring police. If you do, all will be in vain. Your unknown friend.’
When a beautiful young woman is sent a letter inviting her to a sinister assignation, she immediately seeks the advice of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. For this is not the first mysterious item Mary Marston has received in the post. Every year for the last six years an anonymous benefactor has sent her a large lustrous pearl. Now it appears the sender of the pearls would like to meet her to right a wrong. But when Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson, aiding Miss Marston, attend the assignation, they embark on a dark and mysterious adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, some hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.Penguin Classics blurb
Are the Sherlock Holmes stories classics?
I guess it depends on how you define classic. They pass the age test as well as appealing to multiple generations of readers. The writing style is easy to read and the mystery is well constructed. The stories are entertaining rather than enlightening. Their real charm lies with Holmes and Watson themselves. They are the enduring legacy created by Conan Doyle. Unfortunately the unthinking racial stereotypes mar the reading experience for the modern reader. Perhaps these stories have reached their use-by- date?
- The Sign of the Four is the second Sherlock Holmes novel (or novella)
- Set in 1888
- Introduces Dr Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan
- Conan Doyle was commisioned to write this story by Joseph Marshall Stoddart, the managing editor of the American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.
- Le mauvais goût mène au crime – Bad taste leads to crime (Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve)
- Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit – No fools so wearisome as those who have some wit (François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes)
- Wir sind gewohnt, daß die Menschen verhöhnen, was sie nicht verstehen – We are used to seeing that men scorn what they do not understand (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust)
- Schade, daß die Natur nur einen Menschen aus dir schuf, denn zum würdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff – Alas, that Nature made only one man of you, when there was material enough for a good man and a rogue (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust)
I cannot live without brain-work.
- Dr Watson, of course. I prefer his sensitive, considerate response to events, his self-doubts and insecurities. His humanity and compassion are in stark contrast to Sherlock Holmes clinical, rational and dare I say, arrogant, approach.
Favourite or Forget:
- Thoroughly enjoyable. It feels like we are born knowing these stories, or at least the characters, Holmes and Watson. Discovering the details of each story has been a delight so far, despite the reservations expressed above.
Title: The Sign of the Four; or The Problem of the Sholtos Author: Arthur Conan Doyle ISBN: 9781631060748 Imprint: Race Point Publishing (Knickerbocker Classic) Published: 22 April 2015 (originally published February 1890) Format: Flexi clothbound Pages: 117 Dates read: 18th June 2022 - 26th June 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.