The Sign of the Four | Arthur Conan Doyle #CCspin

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.

Foreign Phrases:

  • 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)

Favourite Quote:

I cannot live without brain-work.

Favourite Character:

  • 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 our first storytellers.

21 thoughts on “The Sign of the Four | Arthur Conan Doyle #CCspin

  1. Sorry Brona I don’t have much to say here as Sherlock Holmes would not be in my spin list. I know a little about him of course and have seen and enjoyed some adaptations but when it comes to reading, my classics list would be so full of other books that Conan Doyle would miss out, I’m afraid!


    1. You have articulated what I’ve been thinking since finishing this particular story Sue. I’ve now read two SH stories, and I have a feel for Conan Doyle’s style (which is fine) but not necessarily something I want to continue with, when as you say, there are lots of other classics I’d rather be reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read a few Holmes stories in my late teens and twenties but haven’t tried them in ages. From your review it looks as if I shall have to be quite selective in any I might pick up – it’s much too late for me to become an expert I fear.


  3. I prefer the short stories to the novels and do have a lot of favourites among those. Re this one in particular, I agree there are racist and imperialist attitudes but one has to perhaps see them as reflective of their times.


    1. Some of these older stories hold up better than others, but this story in particular would have been considered sloppy in it’s use of secondary character stereotypes at the best of times, I would have thought!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I see, you got a crime story. I have watched a few Sherlock Holmes pieces (especially the recent ones with Benedict Cumberbatch) but not read any.

    Thanks for visiting my CCSpin, The Phantom of the Opera.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Of course Sherlock Holmes is classic, just as much as Odysseus. I was going to say or Tarzan,but Tarzan seems to be feeding from social consciousness of people less old than I. But not classic literature. I think Sherlock Holmes is one of those stories which is part of our fabric, and has become divorced from the original writing. As has Winnie the Pooh for instance. Sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I visited the SH museum on Baker street some years ago and bought a book of short stories/novellas. I always was prejudiced against the stereotype characters, which I have seen only on television. SH is not my favourite character. I must admit though that I did enjoy the novellas, finding them less stereotyped (except for the main characters) as I thought.
    I think one has to read them and considering the times in which they were written. As you said, we have come a long time since those days, luckily, and reading them and noticing the racism and other character flaws means we are aware of them.
    I read a very interesting essay by (yes, have forgotten his name, but can look it up if you are interested) about the colonialism in Jane Austens novels. These days the racism in Hergé’s comic series about TinTin is another issue which is talked about. They (the Belgians, I presume) wanted to ban some of his books.
    Then we enter into the question of banning books. I am personally against it, however, in the cases discussed above, I think there should be an issue and discussion and maybe we can learn something from it. Just the fact that we feel repulsive reading it today is a good thing.
    Just a few of my thoughts on your interesting post on Sherlock Holmes.


    1. I struggle with banning books too although I’m okay if age warnings, trigger alerts, adult content tags are used to help readers make informed choices. Like you I believe that discussion & critical analysis is the way to deal with older texts now considered racist, sexist, classist etc.


  7. Pingback: 2022 | The Books

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