Sunday, January 29, 2023

Classics Club Spin: The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the result of the most recent Classics Club Spin for me. I have read primarily mystery novels since my teenage years.  I especially like vintage mysteries, from the 1920's through the 1960's. But until recently I was not inclined to read the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle, or even  books by other authors based on those characters. 

As the book opens, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are together in their flat. I was surprised by the first paragraph.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Sherlock is taking cocaine, and Watson admonishes him for doing this. Sherlock says that when he does not have a case, he needs the stimulation of cocaine or morphine. 

Very shortly after this, Mary Morstan comes to Sherlock Holmes with a problem she needs help with. Her father, an officer in an Indian regiment, disappeared when he returned to London on leave. A few years after her father's disappearance, she began receiving a pearl every year on her birthday. Now she has received a letter asking her to meet an unknown man. She is allowed to bring along two friends if she does not want to come alone. Sherlock decides to take the case.

So, what did I think of the book?

The story seems to be a combination of puzzle mystery and an exotic adventure. I enjoyed reading a Sherlock Holmes story and seeing the tropes used in many of his adventures that I have seen in movies or TV series. Sherlock dresses up in a disguise so well done that even Watson does not recognize him. The Baker Street Irregulars are used to help him gather information. And meeting, if only briefly, his landlady, Mrs. Hudson.

I like that Dr. Watson narrates the stories, and I like the relationship between Watson and Sherlock. 

I especially enjoyed meeting Dr. Watson's love interest, Mary Morstan. I  enjoyed how Doyle developed that relationship. The way that they fall in love in just a short time felt very realistic to me and added to my picture of Watson. And Sherlock's reaction to Watson's attraction to Mary was very entertaining.

I had some negative reactions. 

I wasn't bored. Some parts of the  story are interesting and exciting, but other parts drag. More than one reviewer noted that the story was not very substantial and seemed more like short story with extra padding. I felt that way too. Maybe that is why some Sherlock Holmes fans prefer the short stories.

The long story told towards the end told by Jonathan Small, one of the villains, was one of the parts that seemed to go on and on, and could have been reduced in length if it was necessary at all. I have never liked that way of telling a story and in this case it just served as more padding. 

The edition I read had footnotes, which I often find more distracting than helpful. Most of them did not seem useful to me; verifying that street names and locations were or were not genuine, for example. But a few were interesting or useful, since the story was first published in 1890.


Publisher:   Broadview Press, 2001 (orig. pub. 1890)
Length:      160 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Sherlock Holmes #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2014.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

A much better novel-length Holmes story, in my opinion, is "The Hound of the Baskervilles."


Cath said...

That story at the end was a bit strange wasn't it? Was it in Wyoming or somewhere like that? I forget. I do actually think Conan Doyle was more suited to short stories than novels.

TracyK said...

Jeff, thanks for commenting. Hound of the Baskervilles will be the next novel by Doyle that I read and then I think I will stick with the short stories.

TracyK said...

Cath, I believe the flashback story you are referring to is from A Study in Scarlet. I could only remember that it was in the US, so I checked and it was in Utah, and focused on Mormonism. That story also surprised me. I will be reading more of the original Sherlock Holmes short stories soon, and maybe then I will try some of the pastiches.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, I know that I read A Study in Scarlet and I believe also the Sign of Four and yet I had completely forgotten the plot of both novels until reminded. I think that's a problem because in great mystery novels: And Then There Were None, Gaudy Night, Laura etc I do retain at least an outline of what happened no matter how many years have passed. I do remember the plot from The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

TracyK said...

Kathy, I had wondered about the plots of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I have read and they seem similar in some ways. But of course when they were written they came out in magazines (at least the short stories) and people were not reading them one after another. And Doyle created very interesting characters that have been imitated through the years.

Margot Kinberg said...

I'm very glad you liked more than you didn't like about this one, Tracy. I have to admit, I like the mystery part better than the adventure part, but still, I think it's a solid introduction to Holmes' deduction. You're right, too, I think, about the disguise! The story at the end moves more slowly, as you say, but if you forgive that aspect, I think it adds background. The fact is, though, that, at least for me (others may not agree), Conan Doyle's short stories are, in general, better than the novels ('though I did really like The Hound of the Baskervilles). But that's just my opinion.

TracyK said...

Margot, I am glad to hear so many say that The Hound of the Baskervilles is good, and I will be reading that. I will be reading more of the short stories too.