Friday, December 11, 2009

Book Review: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(Today, Patti Abbott is conducting a Forgotten Children’s book week. My contribution is The Little House, a book I reviewed earlier this year. This review is Part II of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day.)

In our modern age, the maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to many of the things we consume as entertainment. How else can you explain all the slasher flicks festered upon us or the innumerable “Law and Order” episodes on television. Back in 1889, when Arthur Conan Doyle set about to write his second Sherlock Holmes novel, suffice it to say he had that maxim in the forefront of his mind.

To a large extent, The Sign of (the*) Four is a lot like A Study in Scarlet (Scarlet) both in structure and overall storytelling. There is a contemporary crime and mystery set in London in the 1880s and a flashback sequence that ties up all the loose ends at the conclusion. But, like any good writer, Doyle learned from the things that didn’t make Scarlet all that it could have been, and he produced a novel quite superior to the first.

The Sign of Four presents Sherlock Holmes and John Watson with a most singular mystery (to use a word Watson writes often). Ten years prior to the start of the story, Miss Mary Morstan’s father, on leave from the army, returned to London to meet her. He disappeared without a trace. Four years later, Morstan began receiving rare pearls, one a year, for these last six years. Only now has her mysterious benefactor asked to meet her. She comes to Holmes for consultation and, after learning that she can bring two friends with her, wishes him and Watson to accompany her to the rendezvous. In addition, Morstan tells the duo of her father’s sole friend in London, one Major Sholto, and how he never knew Morstan’s father was in London. Holmes discovers that Major Sholto died a mere week before Miss Morstan began receiving the pearls.

At the secret rendezvous, Holmes, Watson, and Morstan meet Thaddeus Sholto, one of twin sons of the late Major Sholto. Thaddeus tells them of his father’s discovery of a treasure and how Major Sholto was fearful of anyone discovering him, including a man with a wooden leg (shades of Treasure Island...). When the quartet arrive at the Sholto manor, they discover that the twin brother, Bartholomew, is dead of a poison dart.

To go any further would ruin some great plot points. The Sign of Four is chock full of fantastic adventure tropes: mysterious maps, legends, conspiracies, double-crossings, a hunt through London for a boat by the irregulars, and a pretty darn exciting boat chase on the Thames. It also has a woman, Mary Morstan, for whom Watson falls in love. And in a day, no less. We get our first true glimpse at Holmes' attitude towards women. We also get--in the opening paragraph of the book, for all to see--Holmes cocaine use.

Doyle has matured as a writer and creator of a story in this book. He gives the reader some esoteric details (man with wooden leg; man without shoes; the words “the sign of the four” on various documents; locked room murder) and leaves the reader and Watson to wonder about them. Holmes, in this second novel, is more disdainful of Watson, dismissive at some parts. Watson (and us) take umbrage at the slights, a sign that he can have his fill of Mr. Sherlock Holmes while, simultaneously, admiring the great detective.

One thing Doyle repeats is the giant wrap-up. This time, however, instead of breaking the flow with a POV shift, he lets the character in the story tell the tale, complete with breaks when Holmes asks a question. When you hear motivation directly from the character’s mouth, it’s a much more personal way of tying up the loose ends. Granted, it’s still basically a short story within a novel but you get the sense that you are in the room with the perpetrator as he explains all the details of how he came to be a “guest” at 221B Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is much more enjoyable than A Study in Scarlet. In many respects, it’s a modern, 21st Century mystery complete with the typical rules for a mystery story firmly in place. However, Doyle’s crowning achievement in the novel format arrives next week: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

*The "the" in the title was not part of Doyle's original title but added when the story was first published as a book in 1890.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear


pattinase (abbott) said...

I am on pins and needles waiting for the movie.

Richard Robinson said...

I fear the movie, it may increase interest in the name of Holmes, but anyone drawn to the books by the film will be sadly disappointed by the lack of action, explosions, and so forth.

I hope I'm wrong and the film does lead some people to read the canon.

Evan Lewis said...

Fine review. On the Kids' Books front, I'm pretty sure I read this when I was about 10, and was confused by some of it. I'm pleased to report it now makes perfect sense.

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent review and now I'd like to read it. Thanks, Scott.

Unknown said...

An excellent review of a very good book. But a nit-picker's point: the original manuscript did include "the" as The Sign of THE Four, and it was published that way in Lippincott's magazine. However, Conan Doyle later decided he liked it better without "the" and the British book edition dropped it.

Just to add to the confusion, Conan Doyle later made a copy of the first page of the manuscript and in that copy he did not include "the". For the terminally curious, you can get the details in this checklist of Holmes manuscript facsimiles, which also has a link to an online photo of the 2nd version of the manuscript.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - As am I, although I do think I'm going to have to wait until the 26th.

Richard - The way I see the film: it's like a different take on the same material. You could almost call it a "reboot" a la Star Trek or Batman Begins. Take the same set of characters and create a new universe with them. I think there will be some who start to read the canon. Of those, some will be disappointed while others will find their new favorite set of stories.

Evan - Thanks. My copy of Little House is one I owned back in my childhood. Didn't remember it until I re-read it as an adult. Still a good book.

Barbara - I just finished The Hound of the Baskervilles. I haven't had this much fun reading a set of novels in a long time.

RandallS - I am referencing the New Annotated SH whilst I listen to the audio. I was going to note the disappearance of "the" but wanted to keep the review short. Thanks the the link. Very neat site.

One note from the Annotated SH is about Watson's wife and the chronological discrepancies in various stories. I tend to come down on the side of Conan Doyle: he either forget exact dates or didn't care. Readers probably weren't as fanatical and detail oriented as they are now.

Capes on Film said...

Enjoyed the review. I've gotta read more Holmes.