Friday, April 24, 2020

The Sign of the Four – a Sherlock Holmes Novel (novel #148)

The Sign of the Four (1890) is the second Sherlock Holmes story published, following A Study in Scarlet (1887), both novels. After this Doyle would tell most of Holmes’ adventures in short story form. There would be two more novels later however, both serialized: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-02) and The Valley of Fear (1914-15).

This is only the second Sherlock Holmes story the public was exposed to. However, I am reading the Sherlock Holmes canon, in fictional-chronological order, in which The Sign of the Four is Holmes’ 19th case.


Putting it all into chronological order, was presumably a complex task, all done for me in the 1967, two-volume, illustrated edition of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Rearranging the complete works in this way however, creates a few irregularities in reading. For instance, this being only the second story Doyle published, he brings up several recurring items: bloodhound Toby, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’ cocaine addiction, as if they are being mentioned for the first time, because indeed they are, but in the 18 cases that came earlier (published later), I’ve already encountered these themes.


One thing that WAS entirely new in this tale: Dr. Watson’s love interest and future wife. She is the damsel in distress who enlists Holmes’ sleuthing.


First, the case: Holmes is bored because there is no case, and he injects himself with a 7 percent solution of cocaine. Dr. Watson, expresses his disapproval without affect. Holmes explains his reason…

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”


Fortunately, Holmes’ boredom is relieved when Mary Morstan arrives to enlist his help. She has received valuable pearls annually in the mail, and now the anonymous benefactor is requesting a private meeting with promise of righting an injustice done to Miss Morstan. Fortunately, the missive allows Miss Morstan to bring two confidants – she chooses Holmes and Watson.


It’s a story of exotic characters, sinister and benign, hidden treasure, treachery, and murder. Dr. Watson is quickly smitten with the beautiful and gracious woman, but he chides himself…


What was I, an Army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking account, that I should dare to think of such things? She was a unit, a factor [quoting Holmes] – nothing more. If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o-the-wisps of the imagination.


He is further reticent to express his affection, as Miss Morstan stands to gain a legitimate share in a grand treasure.


Yet there were two thoughts which sealed the words of affection upon my lips. She was weak and helpless, shaken in mind and nerve. It was to take her at a disadvantage to obtrude love upon her at such a time. Worse still, she was rich. If Holmes’s researches were successful, she would be an heiress. Was it fair, was it honourable, that a half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy which chance had brought about? Might she not look upon me as a mere vulgar fortune-seeker? I could not bear to risk that such a thought should cross her mind. This Agra treasure intervened like an impassable barrier between us.


In the course of the investigation, Holmes reveals one of his prime rules of deduction:


Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.


And his sexism, when Watson announces he will call on Miss Morstan and update her on progress. Holmes warns Watson…


“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes, “Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.”


As I mentioned earlier, Toby, the capable bloodhound is called upon and Watson is dispatched to get him.


Toby proved to be an ugly, long-haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy, waddling gait.


I’ve spared the spoiler on the case, and I oops, I already let it slip that Love finds a way for the good Doctor. He observes…


Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.


I’ve said in previous reviews of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, one of the best aspects of these tales is the relationship and banter between Holmes and Watson. Such as when Watson announces to Sherlock his engagement to Miss Morstan.


He gave a dismal groan.  

“I feared as much.” said he, “I really cannot congratulate you.” 

I was a little hurt. “Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?” I asked. 

“Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way; witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father. But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true, cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.” 


I think in general, I like the short stories better, but this was quite enjoyable, probably owing to both the intrigue of the case, and poor, dear, love-struck Watson. I give it…


My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square I-1, classic mystery or crime, in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge, and Classic Adaptation, book that has been adapted to film, TV, or stage, in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020, and it was my “spin” read for The Classics Club Spin #23. (first time I’ve knocked of three challenges with one read).


This also completes Volume 1, of the 2 Volume set that I mentioned earlier. 


One last excerpt that was quite ironic. Near the end, Holmes declares

All is well that ends well.


Which is the title of a play by Shakespeare – and it just so happens a play I read for the first time earlier this month. The next thing I read was Fahrenheit 451, and a character cited the title in that book as well. I read the play, then the next two things I read someone cites the title – weird!


(and showing the pervasiveness of Shakespeare)




  1. Chronological fictional order would be a fun way to read Holmes! I read all the stories (over a period of several years), but I believe it was in the order that the collections were originally published (so this one was second). I don't remember much about this one for some reason, but the Holmes stories are always good fun.

    1. I liked the chronological order at first, but I'm not sure publication order wouldn't be better. Regardless...Holmes and Watson are always a delight. Cheers.

    2. Why are you now not sure?
      I've yet to start my Holmes journey and had planned to read chronologically, but happy to be guided by those who've been there before me :-)

    3. I'm very much on the fence, and definitely do not recommend against reading it either way. The argument for chronological is I suppose obvious, and what most attracted me originally. But as I'm approaching 1/3 the way through, I have noticed a few little awkward moments or oddities, that would be avoided if read in publication order. The short version, is in chronological order, you are not aware of some things the author intended/assumed you already knew, and you will know about some things, the author intended/assumed he is revealing for the first time. This, the second Holmes' adventure ever published is a case in point. By reading cases that occurred earlier, but were published later, I already had a glimpse of Holmes' cocaine abuse. But in this story, the author explains it in some detail, as if I was just learning of it the for the first time. Nonetheless, any Sherlock Holmes adventure stands fairly well on its own, and are well worth the read...either way, or even haphazardly.

  2. Years ago (hem, decades ago), I read all of Sherlock Holmes and even more Conan Doyle novels, so re-reading Holmes in chronological order as I've begun to do so is just fun... and so librarian-like, lol ;)

    1. Any order for Holmes would be fun, but yes...I agree.


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