The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign Of FourTwo problems for the price of one client for Sherlock Holmes. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared ten years ago and, four years later, she began receiving a pearl in the post once a year, from an anonymous source – until this year, when there is a letter asking for a meeting as Mary is a “wronged woman”. And then it gets complicated – far too complicated to summarise here. But when the brother of the pearl-sender, one Thaddeus Sholto, is found dead and Thaddeus is arrested, it’s up to Sherlock Holmes to capture the perpetrator…

I decided to take a look at this one as it’s The Sign Of Three on Sherlock tonight and I thought I’d be prepared. I think it’s fair to say that not much of this is going to make it into the episode…

It’s been mentioned plenty of times that I didn’t read much Holmes when I was younger, so I come to most of the stories – in particular the novels – with a more critical eye. This is the second novel, written before the short stories (I think) so it’s only Holmes’ second appearance.

OK, before I get to the nigh-blasphemous part of the review – Holmes is on great form here. From the deduction from Watson’s pocket watch (which Sherlock viewers will recognise as the mobile phone deductions from A Study In Pink), to the final chase, he’s a joy to read about. Which is why it’s such a shame that the rest of the novel is so dull.

Really dull. Full of flashbacks and back story which could have been covered in a fraction of the page count. I was a bit snippy in my review of A Study In Scarlet for the sudden left turn halfway through, but at least that section held my attention. In this one, I’m afraid, I kept drifting off.

I can see why Doyle switched to short stories after this, as there’s only enough modern-day plot to fill such a tale – and those bits are very well done. Just a shame there’s so much dull back-story.

Not recommended, but if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll read it anyway. Back to the short stories for me (soon).

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11 comments

  1. I agree. It’s odd how so many writers who shine so well at short stories botch full length novels (or vice versa). It seems especially prevalent among mystery writers.

    Sadly, The Valley of Fear is even more dull…

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      • That’s perhaps given the wrong impression. There’s a central mystery which ACD devotes so much time to that it’s a huge disappointment when the solution is revealed. I think that’s only partly ACD’s fault. Maybe at the time it was less obvious? But it’s such an old gambit now that it’ll be the first thing you think of. (But he doesn’t get off the hook entirely; it’s basically a recycling of one of the shorts.)

        But there’s less meandering and ultimately irrelevant back story, so it’s not dull in the same way as this one.

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    • I can see the similarities (from what I know about The Moonstone) but I think that part of it is that the style of detective story is too far removed from the classic style that I’m used to.

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      • I’m going back to The Moonstone soon, as the similarities are (if my memory is correct) massive. Maybe that kind of story – not giving anything away – was just in the air in Victorian times.

        In general agreement about the books as opposed to the shorts, but I think the opening chapter to this one is the equal to most of the stories.

        6 more minutes of Antiques Roadshow to sit through before it starts…

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