Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Last week after reading my first Sherlock Holmes novel, I began Fall of Giants, a voluminous eBook and decided that I would read the next Holmes novel only after I am done with Ken Follett’s treatise.

However after reading the heavy war novel, I was not very sure if I would be impressed by a short novella.

sherlock-holmes But I was proved totally wrong as no sooner did I begin reading Sign of Four, I was hooked and just could not stop till the very climax.

Indeed, the second novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, turned out to be much more interesting than A Study in Scarlet.

Holmes is at his best here, making full use of his Science of Deduction and cold logic. Dr. Watson is more comfortable in his role as a companion and the novel on the whole is a total entertainer.

Once again, the beginning surprised me. If Holmes was bleeding himself in the first novel, here he is coolly projecting himself as a cocaine addict. Watson is annoyed with his partner’s dangerous distasteful addiction and yet Holmes prides on his latest discovery, as he can use a new drug to soothe his brain.

The episode shocked me at first as I could scarcely believe that the only unofficial counseling detective could be dependent on stimulants for his active faculties.

But as I continued, I realized that the story is set in early 19th Century when drugs were touted as beneficial and Watson’s courage in acting against the prevailing sense when he tries to dissuade Sherlock from the deadly habit, must be applauded.

Anyways, the beginning was an eye grabber for sure, especially considering that our detective was feeling bored in absence of a good case.

Though in wake of Holmes’ superior observation skills I was hardly bored. Despite his boastful snobbish nature I could not stop myself from admiring the genius man as he strategically revealed the owner of Watson’s watch. It was a pleasure to read his astute observations and by the time, the first chapter ended, I was itching to see him back in action.

And then entered Miss Mary Morstan. The tone in which Watson speaks of her made it crystal clear that she is going to be present in a lot more stories. But, here in the first story, she is an enigma, as she presents a very strange case to Sherlock Holmes.

Apparently, her father had disappeared from a London Hotel 10 years ago under suspicious circumstances. And for the last six years she is being sent a single large pearl on 4th of May. Presently to make matters even more complicated, she has received a letter proclaiming her as wronged woman and is called upon to meet the sender at Lyceum Theater along with two friends and no police.

No sooner has Morstan described her strange errand than my interest was piqued and I got ready for a wonderful story that lasted a little over 100 pages. Despite its small size this novella managed to impress me as none other short novels have done.

Arthur’s expertise ensured that various facets of Holmes’ genius found full expression here. Be it his cold calculated logic, astute observation skills, his amazing presence of mind, his ability to sweet talk people to extract information or his expertise at make up and disguise. Everything was presented very well in the novel.

And, the case itself was much more complicated and interesting. If in A Study in Scarlet, North America was the high point, here India at the time of Great Mutiny adds the exotic element.

But, there is a major difference between the two. The present one seems much more polished and logical as the actual story is revealed only in the end, when the main convict has been captured. Till the very end, I was kept on the edge as one strange incident led to another, making Holmes run from pillar to post, using all his skills as a masquerader.

In the previous novel Holmes had killed an old dog in the name of science, but here he shows his sensitive side and good humouredly uses a mongrel in an entertaining chase. He also stresses on wireless a lot. Guess it was the latest fad and Agatha does seem inspired by Doyle in Secret Adversary.

I would not like to divulge much about the plot, but Sign of Four was definitely a page turner. The case was so complicated that even Holmes suffers a break in the chain.

But, despite my obvious admiration for this well written novel, I did notice two incongruities. The first one is concerned with Watson’s bullet injury. In A Study, it was clearly told that a jezail bullet wounded Watson in his shoulder, but now suddenly he is shown suffering from a leg injury in Afghan War. As the current narrative shows that they have not been partners for long, I found the contradiction a bit out of place.

Another thing that irked me was Arthur’s ill done homework regarding India. A very important part of his story is based in India but his knowledge about Indian names and religions borders on zilch. He repeatedly calls Abdulla Khan a Sikh, while it is clearly a Muslim name and surname. I understand that cultural differences can confuse a foreign author, but still it is imperative to do a thorough groundwork before writing a story set in a distant land.

Yet another prick was Holmes’ haughty attitude towards the Indian tribal in stark contrast to the White convict. But perhaps it was the Colonial snobbery and I should not expect Arthur Conan Doyle to be any different from the prevailing Royal stance.

Other than these small irritants I found the novel superbly entertaining. I have got used to murders happening late in Holmes novels and was able to enjoy the story at a leisurely pace. Sherlock’s love with Policemen continues here as well. Though, he is much more accommodating to Peter Jones as compared to poor Lestrade and Gregson.

I really liked Holmes’ frequent witty one liners and Watson’s detailed physical descriptions and enjoyed the novel immensely. A nice romantic touch was also added by fully exposing Watson’s easy charm and great chemistry with a beautiful woman.

Sign of Four is often called the sequel to A Study in Scarlet and it does complete justice to the word. In fact, in the first chapter itself, Holmes and Watson discuss the earlier novel, which is derided by Sherlock as a romance, much to the chagrin of Dr. Watson.

Probably Arthur Conan Doyle has deliberately made Holmes say this as a rebuff to his critics who snided at the slow paced memoir and in a complete u-turn, he has made this sequel much more romantic and exotic than the previous one.

As is apparent from my review Sherlock Holmes bug has finally bitten me and I am looking forward to have many more outings with this genius.

If you have read any Sherlock story that impressed you a lot, feel free to share in the Comments section. Keep reading 🙂


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