The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

608474As a dense yellow fog swirls through the streets of London, a deep melancholy has descended on Sherlock Holmes, who sits in a cocaine-induced haze at 221B Baker Street. His mood is only lifted by a visit from a beautiful but distressed young woman – Mary Morstan, whose father vanished ten years before. Four years later she began to receive an exquisite gift every year: a large, lustrous pearl. Now she has had an intriguing invitation to meet her unknown benefactor and urges Holmes and Watson to accompany her. And in the ensuing investigation – which involves a wronged woman, a stolen hoard of Indian treasure, a wooden-legged ruffian, a helpful dog and a love affair – even the jaded Holmes is moved to exclaim, ‘Isn’t it gorgeous!’

Inspired by the recent return of Sherlock on TV (and then left bereft by his all too quick departure from our screens – why are the series so short?), I decided to pick up a copy of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four.

This is the second Sherlock Holmes novel and the second I’ve read and it’s a hard one to review because the story and the character are so entwined with the versions I have seen in films and on TV – not just Benedict Cumberbatch (who is brilliant) but also Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (both of whom I remember from my childhood).  It’s hard not to compare what I’ve seen with what I’ve read, when really I should be seeing the book as a standalone.

So, when the book opens and Holme’s is abusing cocaine because he is bored, my minds eye see Benjamin Cumberbatch spiralling in the latest season of Sherlock.  When Holmes leaps from a window to chase a suspect, I see Jeremy Brett full of energy doing the same thing.  And when Holmes is lecturing Watson – well, I could see any of the actors doing that because that is a common trend in every version I’ve seen.  What has changed over the years is how energetically Holmes is played, manically even at times, with pace and vigour and enthusiasm for the chase.

What it is good to see is that these characteristics are not merely a reflection of the times or the actor so much as how Holmes is in the books.  He takes cocaine when he is bored, stops when a case presents itself and then throws himself into this case fully, never sleeping (saying he does not need it) and barely pausing for breath..  It’s an energy that makes the character almost leap out of the page and, as a reader, carried me along through a plot which – if I’m honest – had more than a few holes and required more than a few leaps of logic.  Because it was Sherlock making those leaps, though, all was forgiven.

The story itself follows a formula that seems pure Conan Doyle – a seemingly unsolvable mystery that has police and Doctor Watson baffled but that Holmes solves through a keen eye for observation and a way of seeing the world differently.  Here it starts with a young woman – Mary Morstan – asking Holmes and Watson for help.  Ten years previously her father disappeared; since then she has been receiving a pearl annually with no note or idea who it has come from.  Until the most recent gift asked her to meet her “benefactor” with the promise that the truth will be revealed.

It is too good a case for Holmes to turn down and he launches himself into the investigation.  Despite his announcement it will be easily solved, this isn’t the case as the initial meeting with the benefactor leads them to finding a dead body.  A man has been murdered in a locked room – there are no means of entry to the room and no sign of a murder weapon.  Police (as always) are clueless but Holmes is not, as he is only to keen to tell Watson.

What follows is a high-speed chase through London before the villains escape with Holmes fully in charge and leading the way (and, whilst he says he is beaten more than once, you never get the feeling he really is).  There are plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you interested and I enjoyed reading about a London I will never know with the smog, the river rats, the social mores.  Reading a book written during the time period in which it is set can never be beaten for truly getting a feel for how things really were.

Watson, meanwhile, is a faithful recorder of events – both of Holmes’ actions but also his thoughts and feelings in relation to the case and Miss Morstan.  Although usually portrayed as bumbling, Watson isn’t as dumb as he first appears – it’s just that nobody is as quick or as smart as Holmes.  He is never going to be the one that solves the case – but he is the one that brings a balance to the story, the human element against an almost superhuman Holmes.  Of the two, Watson I can relate to; Holmes I cannot.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like Holmes but he is in many ways a mix of characteristics vs. a personality if that makes sense.  Watson is rounded and feels real.  I could imagine sitting and having a conversation with him whereas with Holmes I would get a lecture and end up feeling pretty stupid I fear.  It didn’t put me off the book (it’s not like I didn’t know what to expect) but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first and only other Sherlock book I’ve read, a Study in Scarlet.  Holmes was too hyper for me here, the plot required me to suspend belief too many times and, in the end, whilst I liked it, I probably wouldn’t go any further than that.



Source: Library
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: Various (first published 1890)
Pages: 130
Format: paperback
Genre: crime, mystery, thriller

you might also like….

A Study in Scarlet


  1. I need to read another Holmes, I love the TV show, movies, etc but have only read A Study in Scarlett, I also know how hard it is sometimes to review a book you watched as a movie or TV series, I sometimes confuse them.


  2. I struggle with the Holmes books for the exact reason you mention. I can only picture Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and while sometimes that works sometimes it’s hard to get past. I listened to Hound of the Baskervilles not too long ago and really enjoyed. I haven’t read any Holmes since I was about 14 and I was able to pick up on a lot more detail than I did then.


  3. […] The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle, which was spoilt for me by the fact I have too many TV versions of Sherlock running round my head.  Even without this, I’m not sure there weren’t too many holes in a plot that seemed to hope the pace would make me miss them. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s