#907: “Whimsical and bizarre conceits of this kind are common enough in the annals of crime…” – The Sign of Four, a.k.a. The Sign of the Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

My memory of The Sign of Four (1890), the second story to feature Sherlock Holmes from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, was that it offered little of interest or consequence, and stood rather as a footnote in the canon than a core text. And, rereading it for this post, I’ve come to realise that this impression is both quite right and very wrong indeed.

A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes’ debut, and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), arguably his most prestigious case, are two of the most famous novels in the whole of detective fiction, and the two collections of short stories published between them are rightly lauded for the brilliant work they did in laying the tenets of the Great Detective. And yet I’d wager that it’s Holmes’ second case which really made him into the character he is, refining the broad strokes of Doyle’s innovation in his debut to make the man far more interesting than he might otherwise be.

It’s here that we first witness Holmes’ predilection for drugs between cases (“Which is it today, morphine or cocaine?”), here we encounter his oft-quoted adage about “eliminat[ing] the impossible”, his antipathy towards women and romantic entanglement, his repression of (nearly) all emotion (“The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”), and his fondness and talent for disguise. Where he was neatly summarised by Watson’s 12-point list of his capabilities and interests in their first case, it’s here that Doyle really finds the time to make the man breathe and feel like a functional human being in the world where he operates. He’s even had time to improve upon the complete ignorance of literature Watson headed that famous list with, quoting Goethe twice — even finding him “pithy” — which will, I suppose, lead in time to the Shakespearean allusion which is perhaps more famously attributed to Doyle (“The game’s afoot!”), doubtless to the fury of English majors the world over.

In short, The Sign of Four is the making of Sherlock Holmes. It is here that he emerges from the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, becoming more than just familiar traits used elsehow to achieve some uniqueness, and to give us the detective archetype still in general usage today (replace cocaine with alcohol, failed interpersonal relationships, hell, even with more cocaine, and I’ll show you a modern detective thus-afflicted). I’m also fairly certain that this is the first instance of those implied-but-never-written cases which tantalise Sherlockians so greatly, albeit from an aside made by Holmes rather than oversized Sumatran rat teasing by our chronicler (“I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellant man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.”).

And this is just as well, because the mystery is…far from Doyle’s best.

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Looked at purely as a mystery, it is easy to understand why this novel has perhaps dropped from the front rank in consideration for the best of the official canon. In essence, it involves meeting a man, going to a house, borrowing a dog, and hiring a boat — none of which really requires the faculties of the World’s Greatest Detective — which finds the problem stripped of the intriguing devices that make the most famous of the short stories so compelling: no men with a precise shade of red hair, no intriguing deathbed declarations, no apparently benign items received in the mail resulting in terror, no accusations of vampirism, no soulless blackmailers. At face value, the murder of Bartholomew Sholto is a fairly mundane affair, with even its vague pretensions as a locked room mystery (“The door is locked; the window is inaccessible…”) undone fairly swiftly by the presence of a hatch in the roof, and a conveniently leaky bottle of creosote — a ubiquitous problem, I think you’ll agree, even in this day and age — to expedite things, with some timely lamp-shading thrown in for good measure:

“Do not imagine,” said Holmes, “that I depend for my success in this case upon the mere chance of one of these fellows having put his foot in the chemical. I have knowledge now which would enable me to trace them in many different ways. This, however, is the readiest and, since fortune has put it into our hands, I should be culpable if I neglected it. It has, however, prevented the case from becoming the pretty little intellectual problem which it at one time promised to be. There might have been some credit to be gained out of it, but for this too palpable clue.”

I say “at face value”, however, because there’s plenty to keep the over-committed reader such as myself interested despite its shortcomings. Those who claim that Holmes is an automaton prior to his resurrection (spoilers…?) in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903) — hence why I say he represses most of his emotions, even at this early stage — are conveniently forgetting the sight of these two men doubled up in “an uncontrollable fit of laughter” when their canine apprentice Toby leads them with great dignity to recently-creosoted cask at the end of chapter 7. There is also the magnificent moment early on in which Holmes defends to an indignant Watson his use of stimulants when he has his druthers, which comes out as something between a rallying cry and the exposure of the naked soul of a tortured man:

“I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.”

And that desire to move on from Poe is surely painted all over the scene of Bartholomew’s murder: the inaccessible room, the baroque and bizarre method of murder, the tiny footprints which can be found all about the place — never before has the phrase “monkey with a blowpipe” sprung so fully formed to my mind as when I first encountered this scene, convinced as I was that Doyle was leaning into the more ridiculous elements of Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)…and then he singularly fails to even indulge us with an aside about the absurdity of such an idea, brush off simian malefactors to instead bring us perhaps the most poorly-aged aspect of these stories with the natives of the Andaman Islands. And yet even this has, in recent times, taken on a telling aspect for me, because you’ll not convince me that the text Holmes quotes to ‘explain’ the provenance of the infamous Tonga wasn’t an influence on Alan Thomas in The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) — itself a commentary of sorts on the Holmes/Watson archetype the sprung up in Doyle’s wake — wherein a similar (and similarly appalling-dated) approach was used to justify suspicion of a Malay servant.

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And, look, for all the holes we can pick and shortcomings we can highlight, let us not overlook the reason that the Holmes stories have endured, and which is more evident here in their second adventure than in their debut: Arthur Conan Doyle writes magnificently. I mean:

We had, indeed, reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new staring brick buildings, the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country.

Goddamn, that’s wonderful. As is:

So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained blood-hound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defence

It’s fair to say, too, that Doyle has learned much about structure since his debut, and so instead of veering off into a bemusingly long-winded description of his criminal’s travails in the middle of the book this time, he keeps it until the end (and wisely reduces the pages committed to the undertaking) and fills it with turns of phrase that brim with grit (“From every point on the compass there was nothing but torture and murder and outrage.”) and a grim terror all of their own (“Never was a man so compassed round with death.”). The short stories would benefit from this increased confidence and brevity — and, indeed, Doyle would reduce his criminal’s motives accordingly as he mastered the form, saving us yet more pages of explanation — and the pithiness of the famous lines mentioned above are doubtless a key factor in their endurance in popular memory.

I should also mention the B-story here of Watson meeting his first wife, Mary Morstan. While it progresses far, far too quickly to feel even close to realistic — “I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman,” Watson tells her, when their three meetings have found her rendered silent and/or terrified — it’s charmingly related at times, especially in Watson’s clear infatuation from the first (“To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.”) and the touching moments when they seem to find genuine solace in each other’s company (“So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.”). While this string of things may be far from the focus, it’s lovely to think of this “army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking-account” fighting against the reality of their potential separation on purely financial ground, and you genuinely feel the ache of his desire and the comfortable stolidity of the magnanimity with which he views the situation as hopeless.

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Indeed, there’s quite a lot of Watson in here, too, which is easy to miss in the onslaught of Holmes that greets us upon rereading. His insecurities about his wastrel brother, the calm practicality that sees him bring a stethoscope to a mysterious late-night rendezvous (“I listened to his heart, as requested, but was unable to find anything amiss…”), and his willingness — as Caroline Crampton has previously noted — to venture forth into any situation with a lack of curiosity that seems superhuman at times. It is easy — in light of his emotional simplicity, his earnestness, his transparency of nature — to understand why Watson has been rendered slightly bland and ineffectual in the public consciousness (via, yes, Nigel Bruce) but you can also see why he’s the perfect foil to counterbalance the funambulist act Doyle pulls off time and time again: he is simple where Holmes is complex, and complex where Holmes is simple. Call it Yin and Yang, call it apples and oranges…the double-act is perfected here, and remains perfect 130 years later.

The short stories Doyle was about to astound the world with remain exemplars of the form because of the superb ground laid so adroitly here: the characters sing out clearly so that we need not dwell too much upon their nature when there is instead a puzzle to solve, the ideas are imaginative in a way that feeds the plot rather than simply being eye-catching banners that dwindle away to a dull routine seen countless times before, and the plots are rendered in clean prose shorn of excess. The Sign of Four allowed Doyle to work towards all those outcomes and so, while possessed of many flaws, frankly deserves untold credit.

15 thoughts on “#907: “Whimsical and bizarre conceits of this kind are common enough in the annals of crime…” – The Sign of Four, a.k.a. The Sign of the Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. Wow. I did not remember anything from this book besides Holmes’s drug abuse and Watson meeting Mary, and something about Asia. And I only read it a few years ago…

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    • Hey, I read it 20 years ago and only remembered them following a dog for what seemed like aaaaaages and precisely nothing else of consequence…it was lovely to reread it and be proved wrong 🙂

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  2. This book is the one that convinced young me that late-Victorian novels could have solid action in them as well as the other elements of Holmes that I so enjoy. The pursuit near the end of the novel was a revelation to me and is, I think, another testimonial to Doyle’s writing as compared to his contemporaries. As with the later Hound, I shudder to think how floridly another author would have written that scene.

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    • Yea, an excellent point — many of Doyle’s contemporaries were writing leaden-footed stuff that would fail to excite even the most patient among us, and yet this 130+ year-old effort continues to delight and intrigue.

      I wrote about the accessibility of Doyle’s language several years back, but even that’s not enough to justify his continued popularity — the stories are well-told, the events exciting and frequent, and it’s all rather breathless fun. The mystery might fall down, but there’s so much of colour and interest here, it’s difficult not to get swept up in it even after all this time.

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    • I had memories of the dog chase taking up significantly more of the narrative than it did — I remembered the murder and the scene, but thought it was almost all Toby from there. Lovely to be wrong and find so much more than I ever imagined here instead 🙂

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  3. In Conan Doyle’s other work, such as his historical fiction, you find the same lively vivid approach to writing. And the same gift for characterisation – characters who could have been clichés but he brings them to life.

    He was one of the greats as far as historical fiction is concerned.

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    • I need to read more non-Holmes Doyle; I’ve done some of the Professor Challenger stuff, but little else. His descriptions are wonderful, however, even in his non-fiction — Through the Magic Door (1907) is as erudite and loving a celebration of books as you’ll find.

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  4. Depending on when I’m asked, I am liable to say that The Sign of the Four is my favorite Holmes novel. It encapsulates everything that made Doyle such an accomplished writer. True, the mystery may not be the strongest of the Canon, but Doyle supplements the puzzle with elements of pulpy adventure, romance, and outright Gothic horror. He is juggling so many different balls and, yet, never once does this story feel overstuffed or unfocused. I think this story sets the standard for what a Sherlock Holmes story should feel like, and for that I place it very near the top.

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    • I’d agree about the writing, and I think the universe-building here is superb. I think the mysteries in the other novels were better, but I don’t know which I’d call my favourite overall. Expect an update as I work my way through the canon.

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